The innovation of synthetic fleece has allowed many outdoor enthusiasts to hike with warmth and comfort. But what many of these fleece-wearing nature-lovers don't know is that each wash of their jackets and pullovers releases thousands of microscopic plastic fibers, or microfibers into the environment — from their favorite national park, to agricultural lands, to waters with fish that make it back onto our plates.
This has scientists wondering: are we eating our sweaters' synthetic microfibers?
Probably, says Chelsea Rochman, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Toronto, St. George. "Microfibers seem to be one of the most common plastic debris items in animals and environmental samples," Rochman says.
In fact, peer-reviewed studies have shown that these synthetic microfibers — a type of plastic smaller than a millimeter in length and made up of various synthetic polymers — have popped up in table salt in China, in arctic waters and in fish caught off the coast of California. These tiny fibers make up 85 percent of human debris on shorelines across the globe, according to a 2011 study. They're basically inescapable. So it's not unlikely they're finding their way into the human diet, especially in seafood.
In an effort to increase transparency and minimize pollution from their products, California-based clothing company Patagonia, popular for their microfiber-containing vests, pullovers, and jackets, has started to partner with research groups to get to the bottom of how these fibers might be affecting both wildlife and human health.