Your fleece jacket might be polluting the Mississippi River

MINNEAPOLIS-Over the past decade, environmentalists have worried about the effect of microbeads, those tiny bits of plastic in facial scrubs that wash down the drain into rivers and lakes. But it turns out a bigger threat might be our clothing.

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MINNEAPOLIS-Over the past decade, environmentalists have worried about the effect of microbeads, those tiny bits of plastic in facial scrubs that wash down the drain into rivers and lakes. But it turns out a bigger threat might be our clothing.

Friends of the Mississippi River and the National Park Service issued their second "State of the River" report this fall and since then have hosted presentations across the state, with one coming Friday at the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis. The report delivers good news, including a drop in phosphorus, and bad news, such as a rise in road salt and nitrates from agricultural runoff.

The most talked-about finding, however, may be the tiny bits of plastic showing up in water samples, as well as in fish and mussels. The vast majority are fibers from polyester fleece or nylon fabrics.

"It was a surprise to us," said Lark Weller, co-author of the report and water-quality coordinator for the National Park Service's Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. "Fibers are the predominant form of plastic in the Mississippi River."

In the 1990s, microbeads were added as an abrasive to soaps and body washes. After studies showed their harmful effect on aquatic life, some cosmetics companies stopped adding them and Congress passed legislation to ban them from personal care products effective July 2017.


Now fibers are under scrutiny. A high concentration of fibers was found at Newport, downstream of the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant in St. Paul, suggesting clothes shed them in the laundry cycle, said Trevor Russell, also a co-author of the report and water program director at the nonprofit Friends of the Mississippi River. Wastewater treatment systems can't filter such small particles, so the tiny, colorful threads end up in the river, where they are eaten by fish, mussels and other organisms. Plastic fibers are dense, so they also sink and accumulate in sediment.

"Once they're ingested, they can block or damage the feeding and digestive track," said Russell. Studies have found that even very small bits of plastic can cause liver stress, tumor formation, digestive problems and something called "false satiation," he said, which means a fish is full on plastic and no longer wants to eat. Chemicals in plastic create additional problems, including reduced reproduction in mussels and stunted growth. And, while the Mississippi River is the focus of this report, microfibers end up elsewhere.

"They've found microplastics - take a deep breath - in beer," said Russell. "That was a tough finding."

Weller suggested that people who want to avoid sending pollutants down the drain can wear clothing made from natural fibers that decompose, like cotton and wool, and could ask retailers and clothing companies to provide other options. But more research needs to be done to determine exactly where the fibers come from. Is it really a fleece problem or is it a nylon or polyester problem? Just how harmful are the fibers? Can they be stopped at the wastewater treatment facilities before going into the river, or is that prohibitively expensive?

"We joke at meetings that we really hope this doesn't mean that we have to stop wearing fleece," Russell said. "Because fleece is a wonderful thing."

And, Weller reminds people that the Mississippi is a lot better off today than it used to be.

"In 1926, a survey found two living fish between St. Anthony Falls and the Hastings Dam - two fish!" she said. "We nearly killed off our bald eagle population. And the river was so polluted that it had virtually no mussels.

"So there is good news about wildlife. But those corrections were made possible because people saw something that troubled them and did something about it. They took action and it had a remarkable effect on the river."

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