Microplastics from textiles may inhibit the lung’s ability to repair damage caused by conditions such as Covid-19, scientists have warned.

Research carried out by Groningen University, The Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research, and Plymouth Marine Laboratory, found nylon and polyester negatively affected the growth and repair of airway tissue.

Nylon and polyester fibres are released into the environment by wear and tear and during washing and drying of garments.

Researchers exposed airway and air sac organoids (miniature lungs) to nylon and polyester microfibres across 14 days to determine their impact, using fibres small enough to be inhaled. 

The resulting data suggested that microplastic textile fibre may especially harm developing airways or airways undergoing repair. 

With humans exposed to microplastic fibres on a daily basis, scientists also warned of the potential health risks for those with developing lungs, such as children.  

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By GlobalData

“A virus damages the lungs so you need repair, and if your lungs are filled with fibres that are inhibiting this repair then you are in for another problem in addition to Covid-19,” said Professor Barbro Melgert, principal investigator of the research.

Speaking on The Plastic Health Channel, Laura Díaz Sánchez, Ocean Clean Wash campaigner, warned that microfibres from clothing are present in indoor settings as well as shedding during washing.  

She said: “More than half of the clothes we wear are made of materials like polyester. The problem with clothes made from materials such as polyester, with fibres which are short and spikey, is they get released much easier and then they are up in the air in this dust.”

The link between textiles and microplastics has been widely researched in recent years.

In September, a study from the University of California Santa Barbara suggested synthetic clothing fibres are contributing to vast amounts of plastic pollution on land. 

The study found 176,500 metric tonnes of synthetic microfibres – chiefly polyester and nylon – are released every year onto terrestrial environments across the globe.

According to the paper, about half of the total synthetic microfibre emissions since 1950 were generated in the last decade alone thanks in large part to the global appetite for fast fashion and its tendency toward cheaper, mass-producible synthetic fibres, as well as increased access to washing machines.

Earlier this year, a scientific paper from the Ocean Wise conservation association suggested polyester fibres account for almost three-quarters of the microplastic pollution in the Arctic Ocean. The study raised new concerns about the role that textiles, laundry and wastewater discharge has in the contamination of the world’s remotest seas

Bio-based materials could potentially be a way to reduce plastics in garment supply chains. But while the adoption of bio-based materials is being encouraged, demand is far exceeding supply.

  • Biobased materials include everything from conventional as well as non animal “leathers” that contain fruit or vegetable waste combined with synthetic polymers, through to a pure cotton fabric or indeed a polyester cotton mix.
  • Biofabricated ingredients only include microbially produced building blocks for both “natural” and “synthetic” polymers; such as, respectively, silk and nylon.
  • Biosynthetic materials include the production of chemicals for “synthetic” polymers, such as precursors for nylon and polyester, obtained via catalytic conversion of biomass or biofabricated using living microbes in fermentation processes
  • Bioassembled materials include ‘leathers’ grown by mycelium, bacteria or mammalian cells.

Barriers to adopting the alternatives include that the vast majority of material innovators are still in development stages but also the challenge to scale for innovations that need to drop into existing supply chains.