What are microfibers?

Synthetic materials used in clothing & textiles such as polyester, acrylic, and nylon represent about 60% of the clothing material worldwide. Out of this 60% of synthetic materials, the most used one is polyester. These man-made materials are highly popular and usually chosen by the fashion industry because of their availability, durability, resistance, and affordability.

When manufactured, washed and worn, synthetic clothes & textiles shed tiny plastic fibers that end up in the environment. Plastic that ends up in the environment does not biodegrade: it fragmentizes into smaller pieces. These tiny pieces, called microfibers, are smaller than 5 mm and usually not visible to the naked eye.

Microfiber pollution

through washing & wearing

Plastic particles washed off from products such as synthetic clothes & textiles contribute to 35% of primary microplastics polluting our oceans, according to a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Primary microplastics are directly released into the environment as small plastic particles (< 5 mm size). On the contrary, secondary microplastics are not directly released into the environment, but they originate from the degradation of large plastic into smaller plastic fragments. Every time we do our laundry, an average of 9 million microfibers are released into wastewater treatment plants, which cannot retrieve them and end up in the ocean. Also, just by wearing synthetic clothes, plastic fibers are constantly released into the air.

Recent research has proven that we are eating and drinking plastic and that plastic fibers are even raining down from the sky. We are breathing in at least 13,000 to 68,000 plastic microfibers from our clothing, carpets, curtains, and other textiles per year.

The consequences of this ubiquitous microfiber pollution seem clearly disastrous to animals and humans.

Do our clothes make us sick?

Because of our dependence on fast fashion, synthetic materials, and washing machines, microplastic contamination of all habitats is likely to increase. There is irrefutable proof that microfibers are not only polluting the ocean but also making their way to humans.

Inhaled plastic microfibers may persist in the lung and as a result, could cause inflammation. It has been hypothesized that this could lead to health effects including reproductive problems, cancer, and DNA damage. Particle pollution such as asbestos and fine dust has long been known to damage lung tissues, leading to cancer, asthma attacks, and other health problems. If inhalation of microplastics is sufficiently high, these plastic particles may cause similar health problems. Multiple research reveals people working with plastic-based textiles and dust are at an increased risk of respiratory problems.

What are the potential long-term effects of microfiber pollution from synthetic clothes on human health? In 2018, the Plastic Soup Foundation launched the Plastic Health Coalition, which put together a group of organizations that are working on more research, prevention, and solutions.

In addition to the formation of the Coalition, ZonMw, a Dutch organization that finances health research, gave the green light to 15 short-term research projects. These pilot projects focus on the effects of micro- and nanoplastics on human health. Three of these fifteen research projects revolve around the effects of microplastics in the lungs. Visit our Plastic Health Coalition website for more detailed information about these research projects and our Science page to learn more about the potential effects of microfibers on human health.