By Larraine Roulston:
Will a new filter now being tested on washing machines solve the problem of plastic microfibers entering our drinking water?
We have begun addressing the accumulation of plastic microbeads in the oceans.Now, another development has emerged. Last year, David Sweetnam, executive director of Georgian Bay Forever, revealed that a study of treated drinking water from cities surrounding North America’s Great Lakes found microfibers in 80% of the samples.
Microfibers come from synthetics such as fleece blankets and nylon fabrics that shed microscopic plastic when they are washed. Sweetnam stated, “That figures, considering that a single synthetics heavy load of laundry can send a many as 100,000 particles into the water.” He added, “Microfibers are in fact cycling around now in the Great Lakes at a greater density than you find out in the Pacific Ocean.”
Lisa Erdle, a PhD student at the University of Toronto’s Rocham Lab, is leading the study gathering Lake Trout and Rainbow Smelt from Lake Huron and Lake Ontario, and has discovered microfibers in every fish she tested. Erdle stated, “What we do see is that it’s in fish, it’s in drinking water, and we’re being exposed to our own waste. We don’t know what that could mean for human health. Research is underway to gauge exactly how the fine particles affect us, but evidence is accumulating suggesting that microplastics — of which microfibers are one of the most common examples — take a heavy toll on ecosystems in general.”
A solution may be as easy as placing filters on washing machines. Residents in Lake Huron’s bordering city of Parry Sound will see if the filters reduce the flow of plastic particles that enter their water treatment plant. Sweetnam explained, “The washing machine filters will be installed outside of the machine on the wall for the duration of the two-year study. The filter unit has a filter bag in it, like a very fine mesh … and then the water that comes out of the microparticle filter has almost 90% fewer particles in it.” Until 2011, the scientific technique to measure microfibers did not exist. Today, the latest technology allows researchers to find and measure these particles within fish.
By recruiting residents outside the scientific community to add this filter to their washing machines, citizens will be part of the project and gain awareness of microfibers as an environmental issue. The aim is for the public to become proactive in the effort to boost the profile of microfibers, as was done with microbeads, which were
Parry Sound, population just over 6,000, was chosen for the study in the hope that a noticeable decrease will be evident. It gives us pause to reflect on the number of microfibers that must be entering Lake Ontario and Lake Michigan from Toronto and Chicago respectively.
Erdle commented, “We very easily and very quickly phased microbeads out. I think there are likewise easy solutions to limit microfibers from the environment, and it might be as simple as putting a filter on a washing machine.”
In the meantime, our contribution is to purchase nonsynthetic fabrics and wash them less frequently. With innovative solutions and a mobilized society, we can’t afford to lose sight of the bigger picture. We have the potential to make a difference.