Microplastics, and water by Julie Peller Ph.D.

An area of my research focuses on microplastics, especially as they relate to the contamination of water environments. Synthetic microfibers are a class of microplastics and are the tiny fibrous pieces that make up much of today’s fabrics.  The synthetic textiles are used in the manufacture of clothing, carpet, blankets, toys and so much more.  The most common synthetic fabric in the clothing industry is polyester, which is part of over 60% of today’s garments.  I recall when this fabric became popular in the form of the polyester leisure suit. J  Advantages of these types of materials are their performance and durability. The global production of polyester in 2016 was over 76 million tons, all of which is not biodegradable. Given the massive production and the materials’ incompatibility with nature, it is not surprising that synthetic microfibers are in our water, food, soil, air, living organisms – everywhere and accumulating. What do we know about the environmental and human health effects of these tiny pollutants?  Unfortunately, not much, but the research is advancing. 

I was relieved when the scientific community concluded from laboratory studies that face masks made from 2 or more layers of cotton are as effective as other materials in reducing the spread of the coronavirus. Cotton, different from polyester and other synthetic materials, is a natural fiber and breathable. Since wearing face masks is an extremely important part of lowering the spread of the coronavirus, we all need to wear them.  Some people have been making their own face masks and many companies and individuals have been creating face masks of different materials. I have heard commercials and read advertisements touting the effectiveness of more sophisticated materials, including ones containing nanomaterials.  I recently read that a few prominent polymer (plastic) manufacturers have “entered the face mask business,” and are using enticing promotional terminology to sell their product.  It is really important to keep in mind that the material you choose to cover your mouth and nose will definitely make its way into your body. If you wear a face mask made of polypropylene or polyester (plastics), also considered effective materials, you will be ingesting and inhaling synthetic microfibers, tiny pieces of plastic. In my opinion, all young children should be wearing cotton face masks, given that we do not know the impacts of synthetic microfibers on human health. (Actually, I advise cotton masks for people of all ages.)

There are so many science-based issues that are important for human and environmental health. In a respectful world, the choices/purchases we make consider the bigger picture of society and future generations.  I yearn for a world where clear scientific information that benefits society as a whole will become part of everyday discussions, and science will not be used or manipulated solely for financial/personal gain.  In the 2020 Easter prayer from the Dalai Lama, “Our mother earth is teaching us a lesson in universal responsibility. This blue planet is a delightful habitat. Its life is our life; its future, our future. Indeed, the earth acts like a mother to us all; as her children, we are dependent on her. In the face of the global problems we are going through it is important that we must all work together.”    

Julie Peller Ph.D. is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ) and she leads the Environmental Ministry at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage IN. Julie has been writing a weekly column for church bulletins for the past ~5 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are in Advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), student and citizen participation in environmental work

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