How Millions of Microscopic Fibers Are Ending Up in Our Bodies | The Swim


You may not be wearing an insulated wetsuit
like Pacific swimmer Ben Lecomte, but part of the outfit you’re wearing right now is
going to come in contact with the ocean eventually. The new invisible threat that they’re discovering
is that microfiber from all our clothes ends up in the ocean, and now they’re finding
already that it’s being ingested by animals. Does it pass through or does it end up in
their flesh, and then we end up eating it? These are the questions Dimitri Deheyn and
his team at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography are exploring, as they work with The Swim expedition
to investigate the strange little strings known as microfibers. Unfortunately, the fish will probably have
microfibers in its gut. So do I, and so do you. It is estimated that every single person would
have about three to five million microfibers going through their body on a given day. Shed by synthetic materials like polyester,
spandex, and nylon, microfibers are so abundant that the filters once designed to catch them
clogged so dramatically that companies removed them from washing machines altogether. Today, these particles flush freely into waterways
with every spin cycle. Microfibers are about five microns in size
or smaller, about 20 times smaller than the diameter of your hair. Microfibers are so small that they are
able to adsorb contaminants; and those contaminants may be many times more concentrated than in the surrounding water. Microfibers are tinier and carry more charge
than microplastics, meaning they may be circulated more quickly throughout global water and air
currents, and soak up more toxins or microorganisms along the way. They are so small that they are like little
needles that can poke a cell. These microfibers have been found in places
as remote as the North Pole. There are now increasing reports of microfibers
from Europe, from the United States of course from South America and of course from Asia. They are found in bottled water. They are found in water fountains
and anything that links to water, beer, wine, any kind of
liquid might contain some microfiber, to some extent. Those microfibers can go inside the cells
of the digestive tract, and from there, can they pass on into other tissues? Can it affect asthma? Irritation from the respiratory passages? Or anything else? With the help of the Seeker crew, Dimitri
and his team are collecting samples of ocean water and fish flesh to see if they can unravel
the mystery of microfibers’ impact. In terms of knowing what we breathe, what
we eat, and what we drink, it is important that we have a heat map of where microfibers are mainly concentrated. We expect that every single big city would
kind of have an area around it that would be rich in microfibers, associated
with where sewage is discharged, but we don’t really know what’s
truly offshore, far away from that. We don’t just try and catch fish to eat. We also are collecting samples from their
flesh, which we send back to be dissolved and to see if there’s microfiber in there. To count the fibers in the samples from the
boat, the team uses a blacklight, because microfibers are fluorescent. Many things in the ocean could fluoresce. We have some sort of a program that can teach
the computer to recognize what microfibers are based on their shape, based on their length, and based on the combination of spectral characteristics. The technology analyzes the images using face
recognition software. So once microfibers can be mapped, Dimitri’s
team tests how these synthetic particulates could actually impact our health, by using
light production from species as a potential clue. Organisms in the ocean that produce light,
when they don’t feel good, they produce less light. That’s a brittle star, tiny, tiny one. Evolutionary speaking, these animals are very
close to you and I. Its light production is directly correlated
to the health of the nervous system. So if the light does not follow a certain
pattern, we can assess neurotoxicity. It’s good to use them as a proxy to what we
could have as an impact for our own nervous system. My vision for the future is positive. We will start to learn from nature. And that’s the concept of biomimicry: what can we learn
from nature to be the best integrated in nature? Companies are already focusing on biomimicry
aspects of microfibers in clothing so that whatever we will generate will be fully reintegrated into the environment. We live in nature. We are part of nature. We are part of a closed system. We have water flowing through us and food
flowing through us, and whatever pollution we put out there, that will be flowing through
us as well. Eventually. Be sure to visit seeker.com/theswim to read daily updates from Ben Lecomte, track his progress in real time, and watch more videos about the science happening onboard Seeker. Click here for this next episode,
and don’t forget to subscribe. Thanks for watching.