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Characterisation of “flushable” and “non-flushable” commercial wet wipes using microRaman, FTIR spectroscopy and fluorescence microscopy: to flush or not to flush

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The introduction to the market of wet wipes, advertised and labelled as “flushable”, has been the subject of controversy due to their perceived potential to block sewer systems as observed with other non-woven cloths such as traditional non-flushable wipes. Non-woven cloths that enter wastewater systems can find their way into the aquatic environment via wastewater effluents and it has been suggested that the breakdown of these fabrics can release materials such as microplastics into the environment. Worldwide research has revealed the alarming number of aquatic organisms affected by the presence of plastic debris in the aquatic environment harbouring a potential risk to humans through the introduction of microplastics into the food chains. However, the actual material composition of flushable wipes, their fate and impacts in the aquatic environment have not yet been scientifically studied. This paper investigates the fibre composition of flushable and non-flushable wipes, specifically with regard to synthetic polymer material, using Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) and microRaman spectroscopy along with fluorescence microscopy. The study demonstrated the presence of polyester (polyethylene terephthalate, (PET)), high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polyethylene/vinyl acetate (PEVA/EVA) in some flushable wipes and PET in all non-flushable. Other polymers such us polypropylene (PP), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), expanded polystyrene (EPS) and polyurethane (PU) were also identified as potential components in the flushable material. Hence, commercially available wet wipes labelled as flushable could also be considered as a possible source of microplastic fibres in the wastewater streams and, if not retained, in the environment.

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Correspondence to Leonardo Pantoja Munoz.

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Responsible editor: Philippe Garrigues

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Pantoja Munoz, L., Gonzalez Baez, A., McKinney, D. et al. Characterisation of “flushable” and “non-flushable” commercial wet wipes using microRaman, FTIR spectroscopy and fluorescence microscopy: to flush or not to flush. Environ Sci Pollut Res 25, 20268–20279 (2018).

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