Laundry lint causing serious damage to marine species, seafood populations

PLYMOUTH, United Kingdom — There’s nothing better than throwing on some clean, crisp clothes. But, a new study finds marine species are paying the price for humanity’s endless laundry cycle. Researchers at the University of Plymouth say that laundry fibers and lint do serious damage to the DNA, gills, and liver of Mediterranean mussels.

Biologists and fishermen find these mussels all over the world, from Europe, to the U.S. Pacific Coast, to Asia. The fibers in this experiment are present in waste water and ocean environments across the globe as well.

Researchers exposed mussels to various forms of tumble dryer lint. The more lint exposure, the more each mussel showed gill abnormalities, tissue damage, deformity, cilia loss, and significant swelling. Within the mussels’ livers, lint can cause atrophy and or deformities that eventually result in loss of digestive tubule definition.

Foreign fibers also reduced the mussels’ ability to filter food particles from seawater and sparked more DNA strand breaks within blood cells.

Chemicals lurking in our laundry

Why are laundry fibers and lint so harmful to marine life? The researchers can’t say for sure, but believe it’s due to the actual fibers themselves and the chemicals they carry.

Dr. Andrew Turner, an associate professor of Environmental Sciences, had identified chemicals such as zine, iron, and bromine within lint fibers during a previous research project.

“The laundering of clothes and other textiles is among the most significant sources of synthetic microfibers within the environment. However, despite their known presence in a range of species, there have been very few studies looking in detail at their impact. This study shows for the first time what harm they can cause, and it is particularly interesting to consider that it is not just the fibers themselves which create issues but also the cocktail of more harmful chemicals which they can mobilize,” the study’s senior author comments in a university release.

Laundry lint a growing danger to all forms of seafood?

“Mytilus species are commonly used to monitor water quality in coastal areas, and the damage shown to them in this study is a cause for significant concern. Given their genetic similarity to other species and the fact they are found all over the world, we can also assume these effects will be replicated in other shellfish and marine species,” adds study co-author Awadhesh Jha, Professor in Genetic Toxicology and Ecotoxicology.

“Damage to DNA and impairment of the filter feeding abilities would have potential impact on the health of the organisms and the ecosystem. That is particularly significant as we look in the future to increase our reliance on aquaculture as a global source of food.”

All in all, these findings make a compelling argument that laundering clothes isn’t so great for the ocean. Interestingly, however, earlier research at the University of Plymouth has actually concluded that wearing clothes may release more micro-plastics into the environment than washing clothes.

The study is published in Chemosphere.

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