Laundry lint is causing a big problem for mussels across the globe

2 Oct 2020

Marine mussels. Image: University of Plymouth

Laundry lint is causing a common marine mussel to develop deformities, new research has found.

Microscopic fibres released during tumble dryer cycles has been found to have a damaging effect on the Mediterranean mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis), but scientists aren’t sure why. Despite its name, the mussel is found in various locations across the world.

In a paper published to Chemosphere, researchers from the University of Plymouth said that increasing the amount of laundry lint in water with the marine mussel during testing resulted in significant abnormalities within the mussel’s gills.

More specifically, it led to tissue damage including deformity, extensive swelling and loss of cilia. When the lint gets into the creature’s liver, researchers found that it can lead to atrophy or deformities and the loss of definition in digestive tubules.

An increased concentration of fibres, researchers said, also reduces the ability of the mussel to filter food particles from seawater, leading to a significant increase in DNA strand breaks in the blood cells.

While the cause of these effects is unclear, it may be due to the fibres themselves and the chemicals within them. It is unlikely to just be a lint issue, the Plymouth team said, as lint properties are consistent with other textiles and fibres found commonly in waste water and throughout the marine environment.

Possible effect on other marine species

“The laundering of clothes and other textiles is among the most significant sources of synthetic microfibres within the environment,” said Dr Andrew Turner, senior author of the study.

“This study shows for the first time what harm they can cause, and it is particularly interesting to consider that it is not just the fibres themselves which create issues but also the cocktail of more harmful chemicals which they can mobilise.”

Study co-author Awadhesh Jha added that this species of mussel is commonly used to monitor water quality in coastal areas and the damage seen in this study is a cause for “significant concern”.

“Given their genetic similarity to other species and the fact they are found all over the world, we can also assume these effects will be replicated in other shellfish and marine species,” he said.

“Damage to DNA and impairment of the filter feeding abilities would have potential impact on the health of the organisms and the ecosystem. That is particularly significant as we look in the future to increase our reliance on aquaculture as a global source of food.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic