How ‘fast fashion’ is polluting drinking water

The making (and marketing) of a typical Young Scientist project

Microplastic contamination of tap water at a number of Galway national schools was found by three first-year students in their research for the BT Young Scientist &Technology Exhibition.

The research by the students at Coláiste Iognáid in Galway, Aoibhe Briscoe, Ellie Concannon, and Kate Owens, formed part of their project, “Think Before You Drink: Microplastics”, which earned them first place in their category and a special award issued by the EPA for best environmental project at the exhibition.

They analysed more than 40 tap water samples from 23 primary schools in Co Galway for microplastic contamination. They found that 96.9 per cent of all tested samples were contaminated.

They sought help from NUI Galway in conducting analysis of water samples, which is fully acknowledged in their project logbook.

Analysis of samples took place in lab facilities at the School of Geography and Archaeology at NUI Galway under the guidance and supervision of Dr Audrey Morley of the Ryan Institute for environmental, marine and energy research.

Dr Morley advised them on sample collection and analysis and ensured procedures followed protocols. Contamination controls were measured at regular intervals throughout the experiment to assess and assure the validity of results.

“The identification of microplastic using a microscope can be tedious and time consuming, requiring focus and concentration. . . I was very impressed with the level of dedication and persistence that Aoibhe, Ellie, and Kate brought to the project,” Dr Morley says. “It is great to see young women so excited about science and determined to bring about change.”

Kate Owens adds: “It was a revelation to us that our love of ‘fast fashion’ is polluting our drink water, simply by washing the clothes we wear. 77.8 per cent of the contamination we detected in the schools water supply were microfibres; synthetic fabric fibres that are so small that they could not be filtered by the public water works.

“Plastic bags and bottles, you can actually see and remove, but you cannot see these tiny, almost invisible microfibres that are bio-accumulating in our bodies, now that’s truly scary.”

She added: “Audrey [Morley]’s guidance and patience gave us a solid, scientific method to undertake our testing and that was the key to our credibility. We were total beginners and she was so incredibly generous with her time.”

They felt their findings were important and with “presentation sizzle”, they could get politicians and the public to listen to their environmental message. “So we practised our pitch, over and over until we could say it in our sleep and fine-tuned it over the four days at the RDS.”

"Dressed in our lab coats, no-one was safe and we cornered many politicians including Richard Bruton, Micheál Martin and Heather Humphreys. Leo Varadkar got away but we will be looking for him at the Mansion House in May 2018."

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times