CORVALLIS, Ore. – While microplastics have received significant attention in recent years for their negative environmental impacts, a new study from Oregon State University scientists found microfibers from synthetic materials as well as cotton impacted the behavior and growth of water organisms.
“We’re trying to shift the narrative a little bit because so much of the focus has been just on the plastics, but really we need to focus more generally on microfibers of all types,” said Susanne Brander, an associate professor and ecotoxicologist at Oregon State. “What we are seeing is that even the cotton, while it has less of an impact than the synthetic materials, still has an impact on the growth and behavior of the organisms we studied.”
The study, published this week in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, is being released at a time of increased attention on regulating microfibers. Like microplastics, microfibers are of concern because scientists are increasingly identifying them in water samples and finding they are causing adverse impacts in organisms and ecosystems.
A bill was recently introduced in Oregon that would require new clothes washers sold in the state be equipped with a microfiber filtration system. France recently approved a similar measure and several other countries, states and provinces are considering bills. Related, a study from Canada in 2021 found that washing machine filters reduce microfiber emissions.
Brander, who studies the responses of aquatic organisms to environmental stressors, believes other measures could be taken to reduce the release of microfibers, including increasing the sustainability of clothing so that it sheds less and passing laws that would require filters on both clothes washers and dryers. Previous studies have found dryers are an underestimated source of microfibers being released into the environment.
“The answer isn’t to stop using cotton but to have a better awareness and better control over the release of fibers,” Brander said.
For the new study, Brander’s lab, with support from the lab of Stacey Harper, a professor of toxicology and environmental engineering at Oregon State, created microfiber samples of different sizes from ropes made of cotton, polyester and polypropylene, all of which are commonly found in coastal waters, including in wild organisms such as rockfish and zooplankton that Brander’s students study.
The researchers then exposed larval and juvenile inland silverside and mysid shrimp, both model organisms for estuaries and coastal ecosystems, to the three microfiber types at three concentrations and different levels of salinity meant to mimic conditions in an estuary and measured behavioral responses, growth and ingestion levels in the two organisms.
Among their findings:
“Increasing amounts of microfibers are being detected in environmental samples and we really need to identify the risk associated with them, especially at sensitive early life stages of organisms,” Harper said. “This study and others begin to do that, but more research is needed.”
The research is supported by a National Science Foundation Growing Convergence Research Big Idea grant. The grant supports the Oregon State-based Pacific Northwest Consortium of Plastics, which Harper and Brander co-lead.
Harper and Brander are based in the Oregon State College of Agricultural Sciences. Harper also has an appointment in the College of Engineering. This research was led by Samreen Siddiqui, a former postdoctoral fellow in Brander’s lab. Graduate students Sarah Hutton and John Dickens and technician Emily Pedersen also contributed.
About the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences: Through its world-class research on agriculture and food systems, natural resource management, rural economic development and human health, the College provides solutions to Oregon’s most pressing challenges and contributes to a sustainable environment and a prosperous future for Oregonians.