To Study a Problem That’s Everywhere, They’re Getting Creative

But researchers still have a long way to go to prove that all these fibers are hurting human or animal health.

“There’s been little work done, said Chelsea Rochman, an ecologist at the University of Toronto who studies the health effects of plastics. “We know we’re exposed, but we don’t know what the consequences are, if any.”

Of particular concern are fibers, both synthetic and natural, that have been treated with chemicals during the manufacturing process or that might absorb other contaminants in the environment. There is some research suggesting that microfibers can affect crustaceans’ reproductive systems by making them lay fewer eggs or produce offspring that were stunted or died sooner than normal. In Dr. Deheyn’s lab, Alysia Daines, a visiting scholar from Aarhus University in Denmark, is testing their effects on the development of sea urchin embryos.

Amid this uncertainty, Dr. Deheyn speaks to fashion industry conferences on the need to produce fewer synthetic fabrics, and more clothing manufacturers are reaching out to him. Entrepreneurs are making washing-machine filtration systems that would catch fibers before they enter the environment, and consumers are embracing new business models, including clothing rental or resale, that could lessen the fashion industry’s impact.

“Climate change is so big that people have a hard time getting their head around it,” Dr. Deheyn said. “But the choice of what we wear and how we wash our clothes, people can grasp that concept.”

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