BLUE HILL, Maine — It’s no secret that plastic trash such as bags, Styrofoam, packaging material and other items are landing in the ocean, but researchers in Blue Hill are beginning to monitor another type of plastic pollution they say could be a disaster for marine life.

Microplastics are pieces of debris smaller than 5 millimeters in diameter. The Marine Environmental Research Institute, or MERI, is launching a pilot program this month to monitor the amount of microplastics in Blue Hill Bay.

While microplastics can contaminate water through fragmentation of larger plastic items or spillage of raw plastic powders and pellets, recent studies suggest that microplastics from everyday products such as fleece and the “micro-scrubbers” in face washes, toothpastes and home cleaners are going down our drains and ending up in the ocean.

MERI says plastic is a point source for toxic pollution because it soaks up dangerous chemicals such as flame-retardants and polycholorinated biphenyl, or PCBs. MERI’s founder, director and principal scientist, Susan Shaw, has spent years studying those chemicals and said they can suppress the immune system and cause cancer and endocrine disruption.

Microplastics carry these toxins all the way up the food chain from phytoplankton to harbor seals, Shaw said.

Veronica Young, a MERI spokeswoman, put it a little more pointedly:

“‘Better living through chemistry’ started in the ’50s,” she said. “Now we’re paying the price.”

The fleece connection

According to a study published last year in Environmental Science and Technology, sewage containing fibers shed during the wash cycle might be an important source of microplastics. Experiments showed that a single garment can produce more than 1,900 microplastic fibers per wash.

“As the human population grows and people use more synthetic textiles, contamination of habitats and animals by microplastics is likely to increase,” wrote the study’s author, Mark Browne with the School of Biology & Environmental Science at University College Dublin, Ireland.

Browne and several colleagues tested 18 beaches on six continents and found that each one contained microplastics. Eighty percent of those samples were polyester or acrylic, though it was impossible to determine exactly what kind of fabric was the source of the stray fibers.

In Maine, a destination for outdoorsmen and home to L.L. Bean, one kind of synthetic fabric is nearly ubiquitous: Fleece.

“Polarfleece” was invented in the 1970s by Malden Mills Industries Inc. of Lawrence, Mass., now known as Polartec. The company supplies nearly every active lifestyle apparel company with fleece, including Patagonia, L.L. Bean and The North Face. It also supplies the U.S. military.

The release of Browne’s study in fall of 2011 spurred a flurry of media coverage about the threat fleece posed to the world’s oceans.

Nate Simmons, a spokesman for Polartec, said that the company takes concerns about microplastic pollution “very seriously” but was quick to point out that fleece is only a small slice of the polyester pie.

“Fleece is a huge industry and in Maine it’s an incredibly popular product,” he said. “But it’s probably only a microfraction of 1 percent of all the polyester in the world. It may be a contributor, but I think it’s kind of reckless to point your finger at fleece when there are millions of different products in the market that are made from that fabric.”

Simmons said that while Polartec can’t control what happens in the washing machines of consumers, it is conducting a study of the effluent at its Lawrence, Mass., production facility and will compare its discharge to the effluent already in the sewer system.

He also reiterated Polartec’s dedication to using recyclable materials whenever possible. Much of the company’s fleece is created from plastic derived from recycled water bottles, he said.

“We’re looking at everything we can do to minimize this issue on our end, where we have some control,” he said. “I think it’s probably more washing machines than it is manufacturing.”

It’s possible that washing machines could be outfitted with filtration systems to keep microfibers out of waste water systems but Simmons said such dense filters could mean longer wait times for washers to drain.

In response to questions about whether the home appliance industry has made any efforts to reduce possible microplastic pollution, Jill Notini, vice president of communications at the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, provided the following statement:

“AHAM and its member companies have a long history of environmental and energy improvements in home appliances. We take all reports about our products seriously, and from what we have read, experts in this area concur that little research in this area exists and much more research is needed to make any factual conclusion about microplastics from clothes washing.”

Efforts in Blue Hill

Neither the state’s Department of Marine Resources nor the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration monitor the microplastic content of the ocean, and MERI said it’s the first lab in the state to launch a monitoring program.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection said the agency is aware of emerging research on microplastic, but has yet to begin any work related to the pollutant.

“At this stage, this is really a research issue, and not a regulatory issue, which would bring us to the table,” wrote the DEP’s Samantha DePoy-Warren in an email on Friday. “We’ll continue to follow the science being developed by those like MERI and its relevance to our agency’s role.”

The addition of microplastics to MERI’s repertoire of water quality indicators coincides with the group’s launch of its Stop Toxic Ocean Pollution, or STOP, campaign. The group is doubling down on education and advocacy work in an effort to limit ocean pollution.

The two efforts are related, said Shaw, the group’s president. Plastic, after all, is easier for consumers to wrap their heads around than toxins with unwieldy names such as “Decabromodiphenyl ether.”

(For the record: That’s a flame-retardant chemical applied to mattresses and other furniture which MERI and other organizations successfully lobbied the Maine Legislature to ban in 2007 because of the threat it posed to children and wildlife.

“Plastic is visible,” she said. “People know it’s bad to have it in the oceans.”

Because microplastics are an “emergent pollutant,” different agencies have different ways of monitoring their presence, said Meggan Dwyer, MERI’s coastal monitoring coordinator.

“There are bigger institutions than us studying this, and they probably have great methods,” she said. “But no one is using the same methods, so it’s hard to compare notes across the board.”

She said MERI hopes to perfect a simple method for small monitoring groups so disparate organizations can create a solid body of data about the pollution.

One counting method MERI is experimenting with is using a vacuum pump to suck a water sample through a small filter. The process leaves microplastics on the filter, which can be counted and processed later. MERI will send its microplastic samples to a third-party laboratory which will determine the debris sources and identify what chemicals may leach out of the plastics.

Wherever responsibility lies, whether with synthetic fabric manufacturers or washing machine filtration, MERI says consumers can limit their contribution to primary microfabric pollution the same way they curb other kinds of plastic pollution.

“Just be an informed consumer,” said Young, the MERI spokeswoman. “Know what you’re eating, what you’re putting on your body and what you’re putting in your home.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and,...