Lurking in the Laundry: Part 1

Or my love affair with synthetic fabric and shed microplastic fibers.

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Clothesline by Protopian Pickle Jar (2013) CC BY-SA 2.0 on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/xh4Qz3

It’s a laundry day again (an occasion usually determined by running out of clean socks and/or underwear). I dutifully sort out my pile of dirty garments into hot, warm and cold washes. Bras and fine fabrics on delicate cycle. Add some bleach to my gunk-stained kitchen towels.

Here is a cute picture of a toddler captivated by a washing machine:

Little boy looking at laundry spinning in front loading machine
Jasper And The Washing Machine by Henry Burrows, (2011) CC BY-SA 2.0 on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/9HEw5k

Normally, my focus is on whether or not the washing machine in my apartment building is being used by another resident. (It’s not – Check!) But today, I’m thinking about washing machine waste water, specifically the laundry fuzz in the water that shakes loose during the washing cycle, and where it ultimately ends up.

This is not the first time I have been concerned about the issue of wastewater treatment.

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Where Does it Go? by PPJ (2015) CC BY-SA 2.0

This is the cover of my 7th grade research paper on wastewater treatment, circa 1994. Found while cleaning out  my childhood bedroom.  The colored things are supposed to be pipes.

Back to laundry. So from my particular washing machine usage, the waste water (which often contains little fuzzy bits of lint that come off of synthetic fabric in the wash) goes to the Downriver Wastewater Treatment Plant, which discharges treated effluent into the Detroit River. The Detroit River continues flowing into Lake Erie, and then Lake Erie water continues to flow throughout the Great Lakes.

That water flowing from my washing machine to River to Great Lakes still contains tiny, tiny particles of plastic fibers shed from the fuzz of my polyester fleece sweaters and other synthetic fabrics. Hoffman & Hittinger model this flow of microplastics into the Great Lakes in the December 2016 Marine Pollution Bulletin. (Note: Not all the microplastics come from washing machine discharge.)

These microscopic plastic fibers might look something like this:

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Microplastic fibers identified in the marine environment By M.Danny25 (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASnap-40.jpg

The problem with these synthetic microscopic fibers is that they’re … plastic. They’re really, really small, so they are impossible to remove from the water after the fact. They don’t biodegrade in the water (though they might break down into even smaller particles.) These fibers can absorb (and concentrate) other pollutants that are present in the water. And then these plastic fibers get eaten by plankton, and then work their way up the food chain into the bodies of fish and other wildlife, including humans.

The folks at Patagonia determined that fleece microplastic fiber shedding happened in the washing machine no matter how lovingly crafted from recycled-PET soda bottles the fleece was.  However higher quality fabric shed fibers at a lower rate.

As an environmental educator, most of my “outdoor” clothing (i.e. Teva Pants, long underwear, and outer layers, including socks) contain synthetic fibers. Every time I come out of the garden or woods to wash my mud-caked clothes, I’m contributing to this pollution problem.

To be continued…

 

Bad-Ass Librarians

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Timbuktu manuscript by Leslie Lewis, (2011) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/9hv7Lq

I just started reading the book The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer. It chronicles the adventures of a group of determined librarians who rescued centuries-old handwritten Islamic manuscripts in North Africa. First, going house to house in small villages to collect and preserve ancient works from the depredations of dust, moisture and termites. Then later, pulling off a massive rescue to keep the assembled libraries of texts from deliberate destruction at the hands of Al Qaeda extremists.

I am lucky to have encountered many Bad-Ass librarians (including archivists, information scientists and Wiki-enthusiasts) in my adventures. I hope that some number among my readership. Their efforts at preserving and disseminating information have enriched my education and work life, as well as to satisfy my personal curiosity. I also continue to benefit from the easy accessibility of reliable information ensured by these data warriors.

Some vintage Bad-Ass Librarians:

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Library confusion, 23/12/1952, by Sam Hood, State Library of New South Wales on Flickr Commons https://flic.kr/p/9KZPGt

 
I remember in 6th grade, I had an assignment to create a graph for a social studies project. My mom and I went to the main branch of the Johnson County Public Library. A reference librarian helped us locate and photocopy a table of data from a US Government publication that I could use to create my line graph. Later, in my undergraduate climate lab, we downloaded NASA satellite temperature data to analyze differences over land and oceans. I use Wikipedia daily, to explore unfamiliar topics or confirm knowledge only dimly remembered.

However, information is only as good as the paper it’s printed on, or as solid as the computer servers where it is stored. A careless (or deliberate) hand with a shredder or unplugged computer can reduce public access to data sets, effectively eradicating years of accumulated work. A few weeks ago, I heard that a group of volunteers in Toronto & Philadelphia were rushing to preserve scientific data now freely available on the internet, lest policy changes by the incoming US administration decide to remove those data sets from public view.

Data Rescue events organized by scientists and librarians were popping all over the place, including one in Ann Arbor, MI. When they put out a call for volunteers (all you needed was a laptop and charger, no tech experience needed), I signed up.

We had a list of federal government scientific data websites which were parceled out to teams of volunteers. A lot of the process was figuring out whether data was stored on “crawlable” or “uncrawlable” websites. Crawlable sites could be tagged with a special tool that would automatically upload a copy to the Internet Archive. Uncrawlable sites required figuring out other ways of downloading data (accomplished by more technically adept teams). One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to check off “completed” sites from the list (many of the websites were circular and labyrinthine), and how to communicate that information to the other groups so that we didn’t duplicate efforts.

That morning, I sat down with a group of students, librarians and community members I had never met before, got some bagels and coffee, and got to work. When I stood up 5 hours later, it felt like only a few minutes had passed, but we had logged hundreds of web pages.

Michigan Radio reported on the event, which logged 19,000 links to the Internet Archive’s End-of-Term project, and preserved more than 1.5TB of data from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It was satisfying to be part of a grassroots event that protected public data for continuing use by researchers, students and citizens, even if the Federal agencies make the decision not to host the information anymore on their servers. In a political landscape filled with rancor and uncertainty, it felt good to be able to actively contribute to a small act of resistance.

However, there is much more work to be done. For example, the USDA removed a database of information regarding animal welfare complaints from its website last Friday, drawing attention from animal welfare advocates. The work of the “guerrilla archivists” and Data Rescue volunteers has brought greater scrutiny to how government agencies under new political leadership limit access to previously public information.

For more news coverage of Data Rescue events, check out this list of publications.

Snow Hike

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Steps closed for winter by PPJ (2017) CC By-SA 2.0

Shakes head at news. Closes computer in disgust. Puts on many layers, then snowpants, snowboots and parka. Goes for a hike in the snow. It is 25 deg F in Ann Arbor, MI.

A short time later, hiking around trails at Matthaei Botanical Garden:

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Winter Stream Running by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

Me: “This feels much better!”

Hears strange chittering in the woods. Is it a bird?  No. Is it a frozen tree trunk squeaking in the wind? No.

There!  Three squirrels (maybe Fox Squirrels?) chasing each other around the branches of a very large tree.  Attempts to focus with cell phone camera prove futile.  Oh wait, there are now just two squirrels chasing each other.   Now they’ve stopped. … Oh, that is what is happening. I’ve turned into a squirrel voyeur!

Continues galumphing through snow for another hour. Am happy and cold and sort of tired.

Spots alien-like skunk cabbage sprouting at edge of stream.

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Skunk Cabbage crop (2017) by PPJ CC BY-SA 2.0

Enters Conservatory lobby. Removes parka & several layers, which are temporarily stowed on coat rack. Opens door to Conservatory, the smell of tropical plants and damp soil predominates.

Admires orchids.

Goes home. Opens computer. Starts to upload photos from walk and conservatory to social media. Starts to look at news again

Me: “Wait…”

Edit 2.9.17: Edited for formatting (replacing asterisks with italics) and correction of typographical errors.

Vit D: The sunshine vitamin

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Vitamin D Pills by essgee51, (2010) CC By-NC 2.0 on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/8XGA8R

There are few things more miserable, albeit non-deadly, than a cold. I was sitting on my couch, nostrils taped open with a “Breathe right” strip, my achy body wrapped in an afghan. By then, I was feeling quite sorry for myself, blowing my nose, and tossing a heap of crumpled tissues into the waste basket.

As I cradled a steaming cup of tea in my hands, my phone rang. I glanced at the caller id.It was my Dad. I picked it up.

“Hello?” I hoarsely croaked into the receiver.

“Are you sick again?” My dad asked. “Haven’t you been taking Vitamin D?”

“I’ve been taking 2000 IU a day!” I protested.

“Hmmm,” he said. “Maybe you should take more.”

Vitamin D is probably one of the most underratedly awesome contributors to human health and well-being. It helps build bones, and regulate the immune system. (Aranow, 2011.) Vitamin D may also help prevent heart disease and play a role in preventing certain cancers. (Harvard School of Public Health). As a human living in a northern latitude (approx 42 deg N) during the wintertime, I am the first to admit that I am not up to synthesizing all my own Vitamin D from sunlight and/or food consumption.

Humans synthesize Vitamin D from sunlight when UVB rays hitting skin convert precursor 7-dehydrocholesterol into Vitamin D3. Vitamin D3 travels to the liver and kidneys, to be come an active form of Vitamin D (Source: Harvard Medical School, 2009)

One of the ways in which Vitamin D may boost the immune system is by activating t cells, the guardians of the immune system that spring into action when they detect “non-self” invaders (i.e. pathogens) in the body. Per 2010 research paper at the University of Copehagen, after t cells detect traces of foreign material, they must become “activated” in order to become sensitized and effective fight that specific germ. T cells send out a chemical signal that triggers production of the VDR protein. VDR brings Vitamin D into the t cell, “activating it to hunt down and bind to pathogens. TL;DR: Not enough Vitamin D? T cells will not be marshalled as quickly to fight nasty germs.

So what’s a winter-bound, higher-latitude-located human to do? I could ingest more food sources of Vitamin D, like the injured Viking chugging fish oil in the extremely entertaining historic skiing movie, The Last King. Getting naked outdoors in subfreezing temperatures for maximal epidermal sun exposure is a no-go. (Frostbite, possible arrest due to violation of public decency statues.) Also, my relatively high latitude geographic location (Michigan!) in winter would reduce the incident angle (and Vit D synthesizing effectiveness) of sun exposure.

(It probably doesn’t help that my melanin-deficient skin’s causes me to cover up even in summer. This is what I usually look like when I plan to spend any time outside even in warmer months. )

It looks like the Vitamin D tablets are my new best friends. P.S. Cold symptoms subsided after a weekend with tea, soup and self-pity. Also, probably Vitamin D.

Visit to the Conservatory

When I imagined what Michigan looked like in the winter, it was something like this:

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Icy Marsh at Crosswinds by Protopian Pickle Jar (2016) CC-BY-SA 2.0, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/PKfTvB

Turns out, as long as you put on long underwear, snow pants, sweaters, parka, hat, mittens and boots, it’s pretty fun to romp around outdoors in the snow on a sunny day. Even when temperatures are well below freezing.

But sometimes, the interminable stretches of cloudy days, intense (and not-so-intense) cold, snow and ice just start to *get* to me. Even though I put snow tires on my car, put a happy light in my living room and increased my dietary intake of Vitamin D, I begin to wonder if winter is my punishment.

To deal with the bleakness, I have been longingly poring over photos of gardens in high summer or ogling observations of tropical flora and fauna posted on iNaturalist.

After a rough few weeks, I think I have found another method of coping with Michigan winter: The Conservatory at the Matthei Botanical Gardens.

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Pink flower pop by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

I had a meeting early on Friday morning in Ann Arbor, but decided to check out the Conservatory directly afterwards. The temperature on the thermometer on my car dashboard read 13 deg F (-11 deg C). I entered into the main lobby of the Conservatory and gradually unbundled from my coat and other insulating layers. (They provide a handy coat room to stash winter accoutrements.)

As I opened to the door to the conservatory itself, I was greeted with a blast of warm humid air and the smell of green growing things. Towering green palms and bright color pops came into focus. It felt like entry into another world.

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cacao pod closeup by PPJ (2017) CC By-SA 2.0

My body (and my soul, too) soaked in the surrounding warmth, humidity and lushness of the tropical biome section. However, I couldn’t resist long before taking out my cell phone to record images to tell the story.

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Fluffy pink flowers by PPJ (2017) CC By-SA 2.0

My amateur smartphone photography expedition made it through the temperate and desert biomes before I finally ran out of battery.

For more images of my brief escape from winter (and the strange organisms that live there!), you can check out Protopian Pickle Jar’s Flickr Album Conservatory at Matthei Botanical Gardens.
 

Trashtacular

Regular readers of my blog may notice that I’m a little preoccupied with trash. Here on the Protopian Pickle Jar, I’ve been negotiating my relationship to all the Stuff in my life. Reducing and reusing get reframed as a moral component of consumption.  Composting becomes a personal virtue! Upcycling provides a creative outlet for the human-made objects I just can’t let go of.

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Residential garbage trucks dumping a load in Savage, Minnesota, USA. At the landfill by Redwin Law (2007) CC by 2.0, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/JMKJ9

I spend a lot of time thinking about trash. And then I found out that some people do it professionally! At the Discard Studies Blog, I got a glimpse into the work of academics examining the many different issues surrounding waste and waste disposal.
Thanks to the Discard Studies feed, I read a blurb posted on a new book, Waste Away by Joshua Reno, focused on the author’s experience working at a Metro Detroit landfill. Having recently moved to the area, I was curious about the massive landfills “rising like ziggurats from a flat glacial plain.” (I was particularly pleased with that metaphor.) Thanks to the magic of interlibrary loan, the folks at my local public library were able to source me a copy of the book. Twice. (Thanks MeLCat!)

Reno (now a Prof at SUNY Binghamton) was a grad student at the University of Michigan in anthropology, when he got a job at local landfill as part of field research for his dissertation. As part of his deal with his employer, he disguised the names and identifying features of the landfill and surrounding communities. So even if I don’t know the particulars (there are many large landfills in this area of western Wayne county), Reno’s descriptions of his work at a laborer at the landfill and communities impacted by it, offer a fascinating glimpse into a major local industry within a historical and cultural context. I especially enjoyed sifting through the local clues in the book to try to figure out what towns/landfills (or composites thereof) the author was *really* talking about.

I also learned the word “taphonomy,” the formative process by which an item (dinosaurs, shucked oyster shells, used plastic tableware) is buried and later discovered. It means slightly different things in the paleontology and discard studies subdisciplines. I am going to try to subtly sneak it into casual conversations whenever I can.

Edit (Dec 9, 2016): I found one!

The Onion, America’s Finest News Source, delves into taphonomy with their (satirical) article, Man’s Garbage To Have Much More Significant Effect On Planet Than He Will.

Tangents for this post:

Oscar the Grouch singing I Love Trash!

Drosophila houseguests

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Fruit-fly nervous system by Albert Cardona, via the Wellcome Trust. (2015) CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0,  https://flic.kr/p/rmVZg4 on Flickr. 

I have been keeping my tomatoes on the counter, mostly because if I can’t readily see my fresh produce, I forget to eat it. When garden and farmer’s market folks told me to keep them out of the fridge to preserve the flavor, I was already on board.

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A dramatic reenactment with a nicer looking kitchen. Homegrown by Ewen Roberts (2015) CC By-SA 2.0, via Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/uqFe5k

I feel a little bit vindicated after my mom sent me an article about how refrigeration really *does* ruin tomatoes. Apparently, the cold temperatures interfere with the ripening process enzymes. Chilling the enzymes inhibits the release of volatile compounds which give tomatoes their flavor.

Additionally, I have also been going to some trouble to purchase home-grown tomatoes from the farm stand around the corner (along with squashes, peppers, and fresh corn the owners grow in the fields out back.) These tomatoes are so much more delicious than regular grocery-store tomatoes that it would be a shame to put them in the fridge.

However, indulging my tomato counter storage habit has produced one unintended consequence: I have hoards of tiny red-eyed fruit flies (aka vinegar flies, aka Drosophila melanogaster) swarming around my kitchen. The flies are pretty much harmless houseguests, with their chief vice of mostly being annoying to me.

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Drosophila by Veljo  Runnel (2015) CC By-NC 2.0, on Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/zmDtDw

My first attempt to reduce my Drosophila population was by putting out a yogurt container full of apple cider vinegar, with the hope that the acetic-acid sotted flies would fall into the cup and drown. This did not happen. I may try some of these other home-made Drosophila traps.

Turns out with Drosophila, you can actually catch more flies with vinegar. Or I might try some Truvia (aka erythritol). A 6th grade science project which later became a university-led study, found that fruit flies who eat the stuff show motor impairments and significantly shorter lifespans.

However, after dealing with my insecticidal impulses, I considered Drosophila‘s history as a hero of genetic research. (Having once purchased one of these, I should know better.)
When I taught 9th grade biology, we spent quite a lot of time on Thomas Hunt Morgan’s sex chromosome research. As an undergrad at Columbia University, I was dimly aware of the “fly room” where Morgan conducted his experiments on the 6th floor of Schermerhorn Hall. (I think it was part of the geology department when I was there.) Filmmakers have created a new documentary about Morgan’s Fly Room in 603 Schermerhorn, which will be available for release on DVD and streaming in December 2016.

So all hail Drosophila melanogaster, my unwelcome houseguests. Turns out the tomato season in Michigan is ending very soon, anyway. If I hide the rest of my produce in the fridge, the infestation will mostly likely diminish as the flies die of old age.

Tangent for this post:
Drosophila also have an acute sense of smell.