Microplastics: A Short Yarn on Airborne Textiles

Written by: Sebastian Stevens, Master of Environmental Science student

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Plastics waste is a huge problem within our environment due to its negative effects, even though people are becoming more knowledgeable about the sources and effects of plastic waste there are still areas that are looked over by us. For example, the textile industry increases six percent per year and reached 60 million metric tonnes of plastic textile fibres produced in 20161.

Microplastics come from friction and agitation during the washing process causing fibres to break. A 5 kg load can cause up to 17.7 million microscopic fibres to come lose from the clothing. These can then become airborne while wearing or drying the clothes and accounts for up to 35 % of primary microplastics within the air2.

Indoors, there can be up to 60 plastic fibres per cubic metre of air 3 and within outdoor air there are on average 1.5 fibres per cubic metre of air1, 3, 4. These particles can travel up to 95 km depending on size and can be deposited in remote areas at a rate of up to 365 per m2 per day1, 5 or up to 3,670 plastic fibres per m3 indoors3. The transportation of particles then depends on weather with rain events causing up to 18 fibres per litre to settle6 and high winds causing microplastics to be found in Polar Regions, where there is little anthropogenic activity4.

Figure 1: microscopic images of different microplastic fibres that have come off of textiles during the washing process (500 um = 0.5 mm) (credit: Gasperi et al 2018)

Typically, inhaled air is filtered by the nasal cavity to remove particles that are the size of pollen grains but microplastics can avoid the lungs clearance mechanisms and plastics of up to 130 μm have been found within human lungs6. The smaller sized plastics are more likely to enter the lungs and are considered biopersistent. They can also diffuse into cells and deliver bound toxic pollutants6, 7.

There are two major issues when it comes to inhaling microplastics, the first is that these particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause issues such as decreased lung function8 and cancer6. This occurs when microplastics enter the lungs and cause inflammation or immune system reactions, larger plastic fibres (~100 μm) were found more often in patients with lung cancer than smaller pieces6.

The other major issue is that these particles can bind microorganisms and other pollutantsincluding polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and heavy metals9. These bound pollutants can desorp into surrounding liquids, including lungs, allowing the plastics to deliver a toxic burden to the human respiratory system6.

The ability for microplastics to bind contaminants increases with age due to thermal stress increasing the porosity and thus increasing the surface area10 allowing these particles to be able to bind more toxic chemicals. For example, weathered nanoplastics, below 0.8 μm, can have a surface adsorption of between 78 and 97 % and it could be similar for other metals11. If this toxic load is delivered into the lungs it could cause heavy metal toxicity over time.


  1. Gasperi, J., Wright, S., Dris, R., Collard, F., Mandin, C., Guerrouache, M., . . . Tassin, B. (2018). Microplastics in air: Are we breathing it in? (Vol. Volume 1, February 2018, Pages 1–5).
  2. De Falco, F., Gullo, M. P., Gentile, G., Di Pace, E., Cocca, M., Gelabert, L. . . . Avella, M. (2018). Evaluation of microplastic release caused by textile washing processes of synthetic fabrics. Environmental Pollution, 236, 916-925. doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2017.10.057
  3. Dris, R., Gasperi, J., Mirande, C., Mandin, C., Guerrouache, M., Langlois, V., & Tassin, B. (2017). A first overview of textile fibers, including microplastics, in indoor and outdoor environments. Environmental Pollution, 221, 453-458. doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2016.12.013
  4. Liu, K., Wang, X. H., Fang, T., Xu, P., Zhu, L. X., & Li, D. J. (2019). Source and potential risk assessment of suspended atmospheric microplastics in Shanghai. Science of the Total Environment, 675, 462-471. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.04.110
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  6. Wright, S. L., & Kelly, F. J. (2017). Plastic and Human Health: A Micro Issue? Environmental Science & Technology, 51(12), 6634-6647. doi:10.1021/acs.est.7b00423
  7. Kaya, A. T., Yurtsever, M., & Bayraktar, S. C. (2018). Ubiquitous exposure to microfiber pollution in the air. European Physical Journal Plus, 133(11), 9. doi:10.1140/epjp/i2018-12372-7
  8. Molepo, K. M., Abiodun, B. J., & Magoba, R. N. (2019). The transport of PM10 over Cape Town during high pollution episodes. Atmospheric Environment, 213, 116-132. doi:10.1016/j.atmosenv.2019.05.041
  9. Vedolin, M. C., Teophilo, C. Y. S., Turra, A., & Figueira, R. C. L. (2018). Spatial variability in the concentrations of metals in beached microplastics. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 129(2), 487-493. doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2017.10.019
  10. Turner, A., & Holmes, L. A. (2015). Adsorption of trace metals by microplastic pellets in fresh water. Environmental Chemistry, 12(5), 600-610. doi:10.1071/en14143
  11. Davranche, M., Veclin, C., Pierson-Wickmann, A. C., El Hadri, H., Grassl, B., Rowenczyk, L., . . . Gigault, J. (2019). Are nanoplastics able to bind significant amount of metals? The lead example. Environmental Pollution, 249, 940-948. doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2019.03.087