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Students Mia LeClerc and Eli Hill work in the lab to separate microfibers from sediment.

The project raises awareness and gives students an in-depth and meaningful research experience as undergraduates.

By Amy Bentley

Pieces of your pants, shirts, socks and fleece jackets are polluting local waters. Cal Lutheran biology students discovered this troubling fashion dilemma as part of a science research project.

Over the past four years, CLU biology professor Andrea Huvard, PhD, has guided dozens of students in a long-term research project: they’re studying the presence of microfibers in the ocean, sediments, and marine animals. around Southern California.

Microfibers, a subcategory of microplastics, are tiny fibers from synthetic clothing made of polyester, acrylic, and nylon (these materials make up about 60% of all clothing made globally). When you clean these clothes, the microfibers end up in the gray water of a washing machine, and eventually in the ocean, where they don’t break down.

CLU biology students learn how polluted local waters are and which animals ingest these microfibers, among other things.

Huvard’s goal is to give his students an interesting and relevant research project that is feasible during their time at Cal Lutheran. The project raises awareness of pollution and gives students in-depth and meaningful research experience as undergraduates.

“I attract them when they’re young and train them,” she said. “I try to get them to go from start to finish, from formulating hypotheses, to developing methods, to implementing those methods, collecting data, then analyzing the data, writing and presentation.

Microfibers, she said, are easy to measure and see under a microscope — “and they’re everywhere.”

Alex Mazaheri, a young biology student, has been working on the project since his second year. The study of microfibers is his first experience of working on a large research project.

“It’s very interesting. I think we are doing meaningful research,” Mazaheri said. “You get a lot of people who care about the subject, [and] you can make a meaningful connection with the professor.

Keury Ortez Hernandez, also a third-year biology student, said her participation in the project opened her eyes to the extent of the microfiber pollution problem and made her more aware of not only what she door, but also what she eats. She used to eat mussels, but after learning about the presence of microfibers in the mussels, she cut.

Students in the class collected water and sediment samples at locations including Point Mugu, the Sycamore Canyon watershed, Channel Islands Harbour, Newport Harbor and Mission Bay. They also collected and examined microfibers in different fish, including anchovies, sardines and grunions, as well as invertebrates such as local mussels and squid bought from the Channel Islands Harbor fish market.

The students wanted to know which places had the most microfibers and also how these microfibers move through marine organisms and the food chain. Animals can ingest microfibers directly from water, by filtering that water, or by eating an animal that has already ingested microfibers.

In Huvard’s large lab, teams of students have dissected fish gills and treated the samples with hydrogen peroxide, which dissolves tissue and leaves fibers visible under the microscope.

“We had a student who was really interested in Newport Harbor and compared Newport Harbor with Channel Islands Harbor, and Oxnard Open Coast with Newport Open Coast,” Huvard said. “They found that the harbors had a lot more microfibers than the open coast.”

According to Huvard, the presence of microfibers in local water, sediment and fish is not a danger to people “as far as we know”. Still, it is important to raise awareness about water pollution and the human consumption habits that lead to pollution, she said.

Huvard requires its students to attend a professional conference to present their research. It’s hard for undergraduates to get their research published, but Huvard encourages them to try. A student, Chloe Mankin, co-published an article with Huvard in the September 2020 issue of American Journal of Undergraduate Research on microfibers in mussels from ports, beaches and supermarkets in Southern California.

Keury Ortez Hernandez, his brother Steven Ortiz Hernandez and senior Ashley Rauda examined grunion microfibers they collected overnight at Topanga Canyon Beach as fish spawned on the shore. Over the summer, they will begin collecting California-raised oysters for the project and hope to one day publish an article on the subject.

Mazaheri and his team investigated microfibers in squid. They found more microfibers in the intestines than in the gills, he said, and saw fibers in a range of colors: blue, black, red, yellow, green and transparent.

“There hasn’t been too much research on squid and microfibers,” Mazaheri said. “We’re just trying to show they’re there, and maybe later we can do an experiment on how toxic they are. Microfibers are carcinogenic because the dyes that make up their color are carcinogenic.

Perhaps the students’ research, he said, and that of other scientists, could be used as evidence leading to legislation that would tighten regulations on washing machines or improve filtering to reduce pollution from the water.

It could also encourage consumers to ditch their polyester pants.

Amy Bentley, a professional journalist for 35 years, has written for media, businesses, government agencies, nonprofits and publications, including the Ventura County Star and Beachcombing magazine. She covers topics ranging from education, water and the environment to parenthood, travel and healthcare.

Cory E. Barnes

The author Cory E. Barnes