Researchers: Clothing fibers account for majority of microplastics in Tampa rivers

They’re too small to be seen by the naked eye, but researchers at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg say they're a big problem.

For 14 months, Dr. Henry Alegria and a team of others studied water samples taken near industrial facilities and in mangroves along Tampa's rivers.

They discovered each pound of water contains about 160 pieces of microplastics, which are particles of plastic measuring shorter than 5 millimeters or an 8th of an inch. Some of the smallest microplastics are a sixth of a width of human hair.

And they're not just plastic bottles and bags. Most of what was found in Tampa's waters came from tiny little fibers on of clothing.

"When you wash your clothes in the washing machine, that water gets discharged, goes to a wastewater treatment plant, and all of it won't be removed in the treatment plant, so it goes into the Bay," Alegria said.

The fibers come from clothes made from rayon, polyester, viscose, or elastic. Clothing fibers made up 75% of microplastics found by the team.

Other studies have found microplastics in fish, oysters, and mussels - all eaten by humans.

"Anything that filter-feeds will get them into their body," Alegria said. "There are studies that have shown the presence of these things in all sorts of organisms. Plastics, by themselves, cause health problems, but they also provide a surface area to which other toxic metals and pesticides will stick to. So when they get inside the filter feeders, they serve as carriers for these things."

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Scientists say, separating sediment from the microplastics is not a feasible solution, adding it's up to people to make changes in the products they buy to stop the problem from getting worse.

"We've tried to generate this data to try to convince the policymakers and the public in general that the best option is to cut down on the use of plastics, and that's hopefully going to cut down on what we see in the environment," he said.