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updated: Sep 21, 2013, 4:00 PM
By Kathleen Reddington
UC Santa Barbara's Mark Browne has made some disturbing discoveries that give a whole new meaning
to "it will all come out in the wash."
While plastic bags and bottles clog our rivers and streams and form garbage dumps in the ocean,
strangling marine life and wreaking havoc with the food chain, Browne, a post-doctorate fellow with
UCSB's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, has discovered the real villain in ocean-
polluting plastics is our clothes.
That's right, the button-down collared shirt featured in fall fashion guides, the board shorts seen at
Leadbetter Beach and the little black miniskirt-any clothing made with polyester or polyurethane-are
all devastating the environment and killing ocean life.
"We're wearing it," says Browne in a clipped British accent, pinching the sleeve of his shirt for emphasis.
"Every time we wash our clothes, we are contributing to the most abundant form of toxic plastic water
pollution on the planet."
According to Browne, our clothes are shedding tons of harmful microfibers into the ocean. "We
measured 18 ocean sites worldwide over a four-year span, testing hundreds of water samples and
found an overwhelming quantitative abundance of polluting toxic microplastic fibers from clothing in
the sea," Browne says. "There's a lot, lot more particles of microplastic pollution from clothing than any
other forms of plastic refuse."
Browne's study determined these microplastic fibers shed from washing our clothes are the greatest
source of plastic debris fouling our oceans, rivers and lakes. We're sitting on a wooden bench near
Alameda Park in downtown Santa Barbara.
"We need to educate the public. When you go out to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the density of
these microplastic fibers is more abundant in the water than any other form of plastic pollution," says
Browne, his usual stoicism giving way to righteous indignation as a golden August afternoon turns to
the pink and purple pastels of dusk. "We need the public to wake up, so we can get something done."
A manmade sea monster. (Justin Ornellas)
Browne's next stop is a yoga class at Santa Barbara Yoga Center-the man is serious about
sustainability. Browne's keen interest in marine life started with a childhood spent especially attuned to
the streams and rivers around his hometown, the industrial port city of Bristol in southwest England.
"The River Avon estuary was always murky and muddy, and I was fascinated by what was in the dirty
water," he says.
His introduction to the sea came with family trips to the coast. "I remember fetching a pail of seawater
to build a sandcastle on the seacoast of Cornwall and wondering what was in the sea," he says. Browne's
civil lawyer father and chef mother would also pack up the family for trips across the English Channel to
the continent. "We would load up the car take the ferry and drive across France, Germany and Belgium.
We explored a lot of coastline," says Browne.
The main inspiration for Browne's interest in a clean ocean environment, however, is his mother. "My
mum was diagnosed with cancer when I was 9, and her doctor advised she eat food that had fewer
chemicals," Browne recalls. "It made me realize the importance of using scientific information to make
better decisions for our health."
The microplastic fibers Browne has been studying pose a particularly insidious problem. "We can inhale
these small plastic fibers in and out of the water," says Browne. "It's really quite worrying how easily
these toxic fibers can enter the human food chain. Often sewage sludge containing these harmful
microplastic fibers is put on crops that are fed to farm animals or used in fertilizers to grow fruits and
vegetables. Cattle and other livestock eat these tiny bits of micro-toxic plastic in the feed grain, and
those toxic plastic particles enter the human food chain when we buy the food at the market.
"When scientists look at lung tissue from people who have had cancer and those who haven't, they find
there are more of these microplastic fibers in cancerous tissue than in healthy tissue," Browne
continues. "Wild animals also feed on these crops and use the farmland as their home. Making these
animals ill further upsets the food chain and the equilibrium of nature. This fibrous microplastic
pollution could be the toxic pill in our seas as a means by which these chemicals enter the human food
chain. This is something everyone should care about and it‘s not going away."
Oddly, the problem was only recently discovered, hiding in plain sight.
To read the full article, visit MissionAndState.org
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