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Microfibers from clothing are polluting the waterways, sediment and fish around Ventura County

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Annie Spratt
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Unsplash
When we wash certain types of clothing in a washing machine, like garments made of polyester, nylon or fleece, thousands of microfibers are shed from that clothing that ultimately end up in the ocean. A group of local scientists set out to discover how polluted the Ventura County region is with this type of plastic pollution.

The story comes from KCLU’s podcast The One Oh One. You can listen to the full episode here.

Clothing made of polyester, nylon or fleece gets softer and even comfier over time. It almost breaks down. That’s because when you wash this type of clothing, in a washing machine, thousands of the plastic fibers that make up the garment are shed into the water. They are extremely small, we’re talking five millimeters or less, and are called microfibers.

They are too small to be caught by a washing machine’s filter and ultimately they end up in our waterways.

Andrea Huvard is a professor of biology at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.

“They just go into the ocean through regular gray water, out of a washing machine,” said Huvard. “The number of microfibers are really uncountable that have basically been shed from that piece of clothing and end up in the ocean.”

Huvard’s been studying the presence of microfibers in waterways around Ventura County, and beyond, for the last four years. She and her students set out to prove something they already knew about microfibers.

“We do know that microfibers in the ocean are ubiquitous. They're everywhere,” said Huvard.

But how many are there?

Essentially Huvard and her students want to find out how polluted our natural environment is with microfibers. Looking at everything from ocean water and sediment to all kinds of fish.

To do that they had to collect samples from lots of different locations.

Finding microfibers in the natural environment

I tagged along with a few of Huvard’s students on a visit to one of those places — Sycamore Canyon. The canyon is located just off Pacific Coast Highway — a 20-minute-drive south from the City of Oxnard.

Adrianna Ebrahim and Mia Leclerc are lab partners.

“So this site at Sycamore is actually a watershed,” said Ebrahim. “All the rivers and everything wash out to the ocean, so long with all the stagnant stuff they bring with it.”

“We chose this as it's very stagnant,” said Leclerc. “So it has a lot of time for microfibers to settle. And so we'll find them more accessible in the sediment here.”

This watershed is a prime location for research because there’s nearby wastewater treatment plants.

“The wastewater treatment plants, they do filter out the majority of the microfibers, but they do not get all of them,” said Ebrahim. “Which is why areas we've been researching, like this watershed right here, have statistically more microfibers than the other locations we've been looking at.”

The lab partners head down to the ocean’s edge. Leclerc describes the process of collecting a sediment sample.

“So we'll be collecting right here. Just scooping up the sediment. And placing it into our sample bag. Just until it's about full. And that should be good for one of the bags,” said Leclerc.

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Michelle Loxton
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Lab partners Adrianna Ebrahim and Mia Leclerc collect samples of sediment from the ocean’s edge. They want to find out how many microfibers, from clothing, are present in this sediment sample.

Leclerc collects a bag of sediment in one location. She’s an environmental science student. Meanwhile Ebrahim collects from another high tide location nearby for comparison. She studies biology.

“So, again, just digging down into the sand. And scooping up. And putting it into the bag,” said Ebrahim. “And then again, when it's about full. Close it off and then on the label of the bag, we'll write the location, what tideline we took it from and the date.”

Then they have to take these bags of grey colored sea sand back to the lab.

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Michelle Loxton
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Adrianna Ebrahim (pictured left) is studying biology and Mia Leclerc is studying environmental science -- both at Cal Lutheran University. Here they are collecting sediment samples at Sycamore Canyon, south of the City of Oxnard. They will take these samples back to the laboratory to put them under a microscope to find out how many microfibers are present.

What the samples show under the microscope

A fish tank buzzes in the corner of one of the California Lutheran University biology labs. It’s a cold saltwater tank that mimics the ecology off the coast of Southern California. So there’s anemone, mussels and starfish in it.

Leclerc and Ebrahim have set up their equipment to examine the sediment they collected at Sycamore Canyon and count all the microfibers they find.

Leclerc goes through the process of separating the invisible to the naked eye microfibers from the sediment.

“And I'm going to put 100 milliliters of sediment into my six hundred milliliter beaker here,” said Leclerc.

She mixes the sediment with saltwater -- this is so the microfibers will be separated from the sediment and float in the water. Then she pours the water through a filtration system that flushes out the water and leaves just the microfibers on a piece of filter paper.

This process is called a wash. They will do this multiple times to try and catch as many microfibers, from this sample of sediment, on the filter paper.

The next step is to take a look at the filter paper under a microscope. Ebrahim takes over at this point.

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Mia Leclerc
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This is what a microfiber looks like under a microscope. These tiny microfibers appear in different colors depending on the clothing they originated from.

“So we are currently analyzing wash number one and we will be counting the number of black, red, green and blue microfibers we found as well as the other colors of microfibers. Sometimes we have a purple or a yellow or like a clear,” said Ebrahim. “So looking at them under the scope with the light on, there are two red fibers and they're both pretty small.”

The process of counting every single microfiber can be tedious. These students use a strategy of moving across the filter paper, section by section, and counting every single thread they spot. Sometimes these microfibers can be in tangled clumps.

It’ll take the lab partners a long time to count every microfiber from this sample but from another Sycamore Canyon sample they counted 421 microfibers on a single filter paper from 100 milliliters of sediment.

Microfibers in marine life

The lab has also found microfibers present in the mussels you find in harbors and jetties; in the gills and guts of anchovies; and in every squid sample they've put under the microscope.

Steven Ortez Hernandez is another biology student. He was also in the lab that day. He’s been studying microfibers in all kinds of fish.

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Michelle Loxton
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Steven Ortez Hernandez is a biology student at California Lutheran University. He is studying the presence of microfibers in the fish we find around Ventura County.

Today he is dissecting a Grunion. Grunion are ocean fish found mostly along California’s Central, South coast all the way down to Baja California. Why are they interested in Grunion?

“They have not fed in the wild. It can be weeks or months because they are breeding,” said Ortez Hernandez.

Meaning the results from their empty guts will be particularly revealing — if they aren’t eating, will the microfibers still be found in the fish?

To catch a Grunion you have to wait for them to swim up the beach during their breeding season. Grunion hunting, as the practice is called, is regulated in California — you need a fishing license, you can only catch them by hand and you can’t dig a hole to entrap them. It’s slippery business.

Ortez Hernandez, is now, with surgical scissors, dissecting a Grunion to find out if microfibers are inside.

“So we'll open the fish from the top of the mouth and we're going to cut from the mouth all the way to the anus,” said Ortez Hernandez. “So then after we have dissected the midline of the fish we're pretty much going to open it up and make sure we have a clear view of the gills and the digestive tract.”

Steven’s sample found microfibers present in the gills of this Grunion but not the gut. Meaning even a starving grunion is swimming around with fibers.

Why should we care about microfibers?

So why should we care that microfibers are present in the waterways, sediment and fish around Ventura County.

Here’s Leclerc again, the environmental science student.

“Unfortunately these microfibers are in the water and going into these filter feeders and not only those organisms, but higher up the trophic level like fish, which in turn affect humans when we're eating those organisms,” said Leclerc.

And her lab partner Ebrahim adds.

“I'm sure everybody's familiar with the pacific garbage patch and, you know, try not to use cotton swabs and plastic straws and all those things are very tangible. And you can see them so you can see how bad the pollution is. If you're worried about that type of stuff, you should also be worried about microfibers. Just because it's out of sight doesn't mean that it should be out of mind,” said Ebrahim.

For Andrea Huvard it’s even bigger than that. She’s the biology professor.

“People used to think that the ocean was so big that we couldn't really do enough to really change the course of the ocean… right,” said Huvard.

She glances over at a complicated jigsaw puzzle she has framed in her office. It’s a satellite view of earth mostly showing the ocean.

“That's really why I have this picture of the ocean on my wall that I stare at every single day. Because I look at that and I think ‘We have to look at that ocean and think of how are we going to manage the natural world in the future?’” said Huvard. “So if I can get nine students to count microfibers in my lab, I'm thinking, OK, you know, because they're the future. I'm not the future. I'm the past.”

When I asked these scientists what the solution to the microfiber problem is, many of them said simply — have less stuff. Wear your fleece jacket for nine months longer, don’t get a new one just yet. Take your clothes to a thrift shop so you’re not inviting new microfibers into the world. You could also choose cotton or hemp clothing that doesn’t have plastic microfibers. They call these the good microfibers.

California Lutheran University is the parent of KCLU.

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