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Tumble dryers release microplastics - these are the possible consequences for health

In many apartments, tumble dryers run several times a week - and release fibrous microplastics from textiles.

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Tumble dryers release microplastics - these are the possible consequences for health

In many apartments, tumble dryers run several times a week - and release fibrous microplastics from textiles. The filters in the devices hold back a large part of the detached fibers and fiber fragments, but by no means all, says Maike Rabe, head of the Research Institute for Textiles and Clothing at the Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences. Tumble dryers therefore do not belong in the room, but at most in the basement, emphasizes the expert. The best solution with regard to the environment, climate and health is to do without the appliances entirely and instead hang the laundry on the line.

According to analyzes by Rabe's team, the amount of material dissolved from textiles per cycle is higher in dryers than in washing machines. One in early 2022 in the journal “Environmental Science

"Textiles made of synthetic fibers such as polyester and acrylic are one of the main sources of unintentional release of microplastics into the environment," says the EU Commission. Microplastics are parts less than five millimeters in size. The particles can be carried to distant areas via air currents. Fibrous plastic microparticles have even been detected in Arctic snow. Larger particles become more brittle due to mechanical stress and other processes and fragment into smaller and smaller ones.

In Germany, the particles produced in washing machines are routed with the waste water to sewage treatment plants and are largely retained there, as shown by the results of the Federal Research Ministry's "Plastics in the Environment" funding priority. Depending on the model used, at least a small part of the dryer can get into the immediate vicinity.

The number of devices is huge: In Europe, almost 30 percent of households are equipped with tumble dryers, in Germany 48 percent, according to BSH Hausgeräte GmbH, one of the largest manufacturers of household appliances in Europe. In the USA it is even 77 percent, in China only 0.3 percent.

In addition to the heat, the friction caused by tumbling in the drum has a destructive effect on fabric. You can't usually see the superfine plastic fluff released by dryers until it has accumulated into flakes. The smaller fiber fragments in particular slip through the filters of the devices.

Typical plastic items of clothing are fleece sweaters, sportswear, outdoor jackets and underwear. The starting materials – often polyethylene, polyamide or polyester – are often chemically treated, outdoor equipment, for example, with perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS). Many of them are hardly broken down in nature and accumulate in the food chain, some are considered carcinogenic or can damage fertility.

Studies have already shown that microplastics can impair the health of fish, seabirds and other sea creatures. According to studies, airborne microplastics are ubiquitous around the world - and are particularly common indoors, where people spend many hours a day. It is unclear what the consequences are if people breathe in fibrous microplastics, for example from dryer exhaust air, together with paints and other chemicals.

According to Rabe, typical textile fibers have a diameter of at least three, more often ten micrometers, so that the risk of them getting into the respiratory tract is low. "Nevertheless, more detailed investigations should be encouraged." The analysis of plastics in the air has only just begun, explains Wolfram Birmili from the Department of Indoor Hygiene and Health-Related Environmental Pollution at the Federal Environment Agency. "Therefore, little is known about health consequences."

In a British study, microplastics were found in 11 out of 13 lung samples from living people. The particles were up to 2475 microns long and up to 88 microns wide, fibers were more common than spherical particles. An accumulation of inhaled microplastics over the course of life is conceivable, the consequences are still unclear, wrote the researchers led by Laura Sadofsky from Hull York Medical School in the journal Science of The Total Environment.

According to the team, there have been hardly any analyzes of the health effects of microplastics in the size range from ten micrometers to five millimeters. So far, such particles have usually been considered too large to get deep into the lungs together with the dyes and additives bound to them.

Birmili explains that the lungs certainly have mechanisms for transporting particles that have penetrated back up and getting rid of them. Pieces of plastic would only be absorbed into cells below about one micron. Unlike cotton fibers, for example, they would not degrade. Birmili considers it unlikely that many such small particles will be released with the dryer exhaust air.

The physical forces required to break up the plastic fibers are not released in the devices. When assessing the risk, however, additives such as nanosilver, dyes and substances belonging to the ⁠PFAS⁠ should also be taken into account, for which the insidious, long-term effects and the effects that accumulate in the mix are often not yet clear.

BSH Hausgeräte GmbH says that BSH tumble dryers with two fluff filters in the door area have two different mesh sizes: one with 50 and one with 200 micrometers. During drying, the particles also accumulated on the filter to form a mat, which forms another, fine-pored filter.

Claus Gerhard Bannick from the Department of Wastewater Technology Research and Wastewater Disposal at the Federal Environment Agency explains: “The smaller the filter pores, the more energy is required to get the exhaust air from the dryer through. The pore size is therefore always a compromise between the capture rate and the energy consumption of the device.” In addition, drying takes longer with smaller pores in the filter.

Bei der in „Environmental Science

According to BSH Hausgeräte GmbH, 98 percent of tumble dryers in households in the USA are vented dryers. In Germany, on the other hand, 99 percent of the dryers are condensation dryers, in which the water removed from the wet laundry is passed through a filter and condenses. The collection container of the device must be emptied regularly, the dehumidified exhaust air is discharged into the environment.

One of US researchers around Neil Lant from the detergent manufacturer Procter

According to textile researcher Maike Rabe, series of tests by her team have shown that the first two washes release around 200 to 300 milligrams of microplastic per kilogram of textile. After around ten washes, the value levels off at around 10 milligrams. “If the laundry is dried in a tumble dryer, at least the same amount is added again.” When drying on the line, on the other hand, hardly any microplastics are released.

Cotton used to dominate the textile sector. "Meanwhile, 65 percent of all textile fibers are synthetic fibers," says Rabe. The problem is exacerbated by the greed for new clothes and ever shorter fashion cycles. "Consumption has increased immensely, the mass of textiles sold globally has doubled within 15 years." The turnover achieved has remained about the same - in order to still make a profit, poorer quality is offered.

According to the EU, the consumption of textiles is the fourth most important factor in terms of impact on the environment and climate change, after food production, housing and mobility. "Around the world, a truckload of textiles is dumped or incinerated every second."

Consumption is therefore a crucial starting point for reducing the amount of fibrous microplastics released. According to Rabe, the release can also be reduced simply by washing less. Users of washing machines and dryers should also make sure not to empty the fluff filters down the drain, but with the residual waste. “Sewage treatment plants in Germany filter out around 95 percent of the microplastic particles,” explains Rabe. But fibrous microplastics in particular tend to meander through the pores and are more difficult to filter out.

In addition, the sewage sludge from the plants is burned to a large extent, but part is still used in agriculture as fertilizer. The particles from the washing machine and dryer end up in the ground, are absorbed by plants - and can ultimately be found on our plates.

Researchers led by Collin Weber from the University of Marburg recently demonstrated that plastic particles from sewage sludge applied to fields were still intact after 30 years. According to the analysis presented in the journal "Scientific Reports", most microplastics on arable land come from agricultural practice, for example from fertilization with sewage sludge. The waste from sewage treatment plants contains on average almost 100 plastic particles per gram.

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