More News About Plastic and Your Health

by updated 2011/12/18

Raw plastic material

Plastic Pellets for Manufacturing

Plastic is a well-documented health concern.  A Google search on the topic will turn up more than a normal human can digest, (pun intended), on the subject.  Even a search of this site will show more than 20 articles on the health dangers of plastic, along with many more on the environmental damage plastic causes.  Those articles have hundreds of total comments on them and many links in to them so this is a topic of interest to many.  Concerns about plastic and human health and plastic and the environment are so well documented and publicized that it would be difficult not to know about it.  Well, here is one more problem caused by plastic I suspect most people have never heard or thought of.

The lint discharged by our washing machines is likely causing human, animal, and environmental, health damage.  That is not a typo; I do mean your washing machine.  We all know about the lint you remove after drying your clothes in a heated gas or electric dryer.  Lint also gets discharged by your washing machine during each load of laundry.  Although this makes sense, it is something I have not thought of before.  This lint includes much more than just the fibers from your cotton, wool, or other clothing made from natural materials.  The lint discharged from a washing machine contains a lot of plastic residue from clothes made partially or totally from materials like rayon, nylon, polyester, spandex, etc.  Most, if not all of these man-made fibers start as a liquid created from petroleum, just like plastic manufacturing.  As such, these fabrics have the same health and environmental dangers as the plastic used to package consumer products and food.  Here is another link to an article summarizing some of the health concerns caused by plastics.

Washing MachineHow does your washing machine pollute the world with plastic?  What happens is that these man-made fibers like polyester break down a little every time they are washed.  These small, (some are even microscopic), particles are discharged with the water in the washing machine.  The plastic goes right through our water treatment systems and is discharged into the environment.  The plastic accumulates in the environment and food chain, causing toxic build up all the way up to fish, animals, and us!

Plastic has many well-documented health risks. There is direct toxicity, especially in the manufacturing process.  There are carcinogenic compounds such as DEHP (Bis(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate) and BPA (Bisphenol A).  One of the biggest concerns I have about plastic is its hormone disrupting properties.  When it is affecting growth, sexual characteristics and fertility in fish, animals, and humans, plastic has an insidious and damaging impact on the health of all life.

Most of the dangers seem to come about when plastic is ingested so many people think: “What’s the problem?  I don’t eat plastic!”  The problem is that is wrong, you do eat plastic, a lot more than you might imagine.  Just staying with the original subject of this post, you are today ingesting plastic that was discharged from someone’s washing machine.  This plastic gets into the environment, accumulates in the food we eat, the water we drink, maybe even the air we breathe.  Ultimately it finds its way into our bodies.  Here is a link to a very interesting abstract of a research study that showed the extent of the accumulation of microplastics on the shorelines of the oceans.  I am glad to see that the problem is attracting research attention, but what really can we do?  I mean plastic is an unavoidable part of our lives now and is there really any hope of limiting our exposure?  I think there is.

Research like the above study highlights a problem that can then be addressed with better technology in water treatment facilities.  It may also lead to changes in how we manufacture and use plastic.  Better containment of the plastic pellets used in manufacturing will help.  Improved manufacturing systems can reduce waste in the production process.  We can make a difference on an individual level too.  Recycling as much plastic as you can reduces what gets into the environment.  Buying local or in bulk can reduce packaging and shipping plastic.  Again, getting back to the topic of this post, there is something all of us in the industrialized world can do to about washing machine lint too.

19th Century Laundry SoapWe should all learn how to use less laundry soap.  Doing this will also save money as laundry detergent has become quite expensive, especially if you use the liquid soap free of dyes and fragrance.  Many people think that if some laundry detergent gets your clothes clean, more will get them cleaner.  This is not really true.  I use about 1/4 the recommended amount of detergent in my laundry.  My clothes come out just as clean as other family members who use much more.  One of the way laundry detergent works is to break down the bonds of dirt with the fibers.  This process also causes some damage to the fibers themselves.  If you use less laundry soap, you will see much less lint in your dryer screen.  It stands to reason there will be much less in your washing machine water also.  I really recommend

Will Sig
1 jan

It will be a very long time until researchers put together the harmful health effects of plastic on humans and maybe never – with all the other toxins in the environment how would they ever be able to point the finger at one thing or isolate one product? One of the things that I really hate is putting all your fruit and veges into plastic bags, then when you get home there is not a lot you can do with them. I try not to use them for everything but what do you put cherries or beans in? Thanks for the good info Will.
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2 Will

We discovered a program in the town north of us that employs handicapped people to sort through any type of plastic you bring them. Supposedly it ALL gets reused or recycled, even plastic bags.

This works for people like us that will collect all the plastic we use that can not go into our regular co-mingled container for biweekly pickup. But most people will not go through the trouble to do that and then bring it to the place for recycling. We need to get to the point where any type of plastic just can go into the pick up bin that gets set out at the curb.

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3 Binky

I certainly never thought about plastic lint coming from washing clothes. It seems interesting that so many of the man-made things we’ve invented over the last couple of hundred years have toxic side effects one way or another. We are clearly not as smart as we think we are.
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4 Tony McGurk

I couldn’t help but think of the Bible verse “Man has dominated man to his injury” (Eccl 8:9) While this is referring more to humans oppressing other humans through war, corruption, oppressive governments, greed etc. In the case of plastic & other unwise uses of technology we certainly are causing injury to our fellow humans as well as all the creatures who share the planet with us. I see the biggest problem in that while society sees the dangers in such things they are so reluctant to give up harmful practices & return to safer methods such as the things we used before plastic. Plastic is cheap & cheap production means more profit. Greed for profit means companies are always looking for ways to cut overheads & increase profit. They are very reluctant to change to something that will cost more in the short term even though not changing is costing us all more in the long term. We often see on the news where the Government announces something that they are going to implement that is supposedly going to be beneficial. Then they say it will begin in about 5 or 10 years time. If they can see that something is a problem then what’s wrong with doing it now? Seems to me they don’t really want to do it but just give the appearence thet they ARE doing something. Very interesting & well written article Will. I never would have thought of this as an addition to all the plastic in the environment. Gosh I’ve rambled on an almost written a full post…
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5 Will

Yes Tony plastic is cheap and convenient, a deadly combo. And yes the politicians do exactly that. They give the appearance of doing something that some voters want done. Then they delay implementation so as to not alienate other voters in the next election. Politics is a career, a very profitable career. The most important thing to an elected or appointed official, is not getting fired.

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6 Rob

Superb post Will.
Plastic is omnipresent in our world. Even remote areas of the ocean are affected.
And your comments about the discharge of lint from washing machines were really troubling.
Looking forward to following you for another thought- provoking year.
Thanks. Rob
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