What Not to Wear — Is Our Clothing Poisoning Us?

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

Some fashionistas won’t buy apparel made of polyester, and that may be shopping advice that the rest of us should follow, too, since scientists have recently found evidence that laundering this type of clothing — and perhaps other plastic textiles, as well — may be damaging the environment in some disturbing ways.

To understand the problem, think of pollution as particles that infiltrate our air, soil and water. (There are gaseous pollutants, too, of course, but let’s focus on particles.) You might not think that plastic is a “micro-pollutant,” but if you were to break down the fabric of polyester (or acrylic or nylon), you would get tiny plastic fibers smaller than grains of sand and thinner than a human hair. When plastic textiles are laundered, these fibers are so small that they exit the washing machine and go through the sewage system, but they aren’t caught by filters. Eventually they can end up accumulating in our oceans and on our seashores, which means that they can also end up in our food chain via the digestive systems of animals that we might eat someday. This is worrisome not only because we don’t want to be eating plastics themselves, but because they also absorb carcinogenic chemicals in the environment. In other words, certain plastics can become tiny, toxin-soaked sponges that may end up in our food supply.


Prompted by previous studies showing that 65% of the plastic debris in our environment consists of “microplastics” (the name given to bits smaller than 1 mm in size), Mark Anthony Browne, PhD, an ecologist now at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California, set out with a team of researchers to learn more about where they come from and how they are being dispersed. Their study was published in September 2011 in Environmental Science & Technology.

The research: Dr. Browne and his colleagues took sediment samples from 18 beaches, including the coastal US and sites in the UK, Australia, Portugal and the Philippines. They found three different categories of microplastics. One kind comes from plastic containers (like soda bottles) and other hard products that get beaten into small particles as a result of abrasion by waves and wind. A second type is granules that are used as abrasive scrubbers in cleaning products. The most interesting part was that they found a third type, too, that is made of fibers that are used in textiles and rope — and the most commonly found textile microplastic fiber was polyester. They also discovered that sediment from shores close to areas with dense populations of humans contained far more microplastic fibers.


The researchers then traced the samples to wastewater from sewage treatment facilities where, they learned, the filters aren’t fine enough to trap these small, fiber-based microplastics. After testing a few theories to discover how they got into the wastewater, the researchers were able to conclude that the fibers were most likely the result of laundry. Through further tests, they found that when a single garment made of polyester is washed in a conventional residential type of machine, more than 1,900 of these fibers can be released.

Though microplastics from other types of fabrics (such as acrylic and polypropylene — a nylonlike material) were found, the only fabric that has been tested so far is polyester. And only new polyester clothing was tested. Future research needs to address whether the age of clothing and/or the number of washes affects how many fibers are released.

Dr. Browne described this finding as “incredible,” adding that he sees this as our strongest evidence yet that washing machines are a likely source of this hazardous type of pollutant. He told me that even the researchers were surprised to learn the extent to which washing one garment, just one time, can be so harmful to the environment and, presumably, to our health. And there are no laws that require companies to prove that plastic fibers are safe for the environment and human health, so the dispersal of microplastics into our environment is becoming more widespread.

Dr. Browne told me that he hopes that this study brings the issue to the attention of those who could provide funding for further research. More questions to be answered include whether all types of microplastic textiles lead to the same type and amount of pollution… whether certain types of washing machines end up creating more of this pollution… and whether natural fibers shed fewer toxic fibers than synthetic materials.

I’ll be following that important line of research, but this is a great opportunity for me to say to my readers what I’m always saying to my family at home — you don’t have to wash everything after wearing it just one time! Doing less laundry can make a difference — starting right now.


Mark A. Browne, PhD, ecologist, National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, Santa Barbara, California.