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Microlitter harming fish in the Great Lakes

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Often invisible to the naked eye, microlitter is polluting the Great Lakes and harming fish in the process.

Microlitter is tiny man-made fibres ranging from synthetic materials to those squishy beads found in body washes and soaps.

A team of scientists led by Sherri Mason, a chemist with the State University of New York at Fredonia, has been studying the prevalence of these fibres in the Great Lakes and how it affects the ecosystem.

From their research, they learned that around 75 percent of the litter found in the Great Lakes was made up of larger objects like bottles and Styrofoam. A smaller, yet substantial, percentage consisted of microbeads and microfibres.

While some companies have started replacing harmful microbeads with more natural substitutes like the ground-up fruit pits, the effect of microfibers has garnered less attention. Microfibres are fine filaments that come from synthetic, petroleum-based materials like polyester, nylon and fleece.

“When we launder our clothes, some of the little microfibres will break off and go down the drain to the wastewater treatment facility and end up in our bodies of water,” Mason said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Mason and her team found that microfibres are more dangerous for fish than microbeads. When fish eat microbeads, it will eventually pass through their bodies. Microfibres, on the other hand, can become weaved into the fish’s bowels.

“The longer the plastic remains inside an organism, the greater the likelihood that it will impact the organism in some way,” said Mason.

This is problematic because microfibres are often made with toxic chemicals that can be absorbed by the water. And even worse, because the microfibres are so miniscule, it’s difficult to remove them from polluted water.

For now, prevention is the best method to keep the waters microfibre-free. So, either cut back on laundering, or, more practically, switch to natural fabrics like wool and cotton.