This story was originally posted by Wired and appears here as part of the Climate Office collaboration.
Every time a plastic bag or bottle breaks down, it shatters into smaller and smaller pieces that find their way into the nooks and crannies of the environment.
When you wash synthetic fabrics, tiny plastic fibers break off and flow towards the sea. When you drive, pieces of plastic fly off your tires and brakes. That’s why literally everywhere scientists look, they find microplastics – grains of synthetic material less than five millimeters long. They are found on the most remote peaks and in the deepest oceans. They travel vast distances in the wind to defile once pristine regions like the Arctic. In 11 protected areas in the western United States, the equivalent of 120 million crushed plastic bottles fall from the sky each year.
And now microplastics are coming out of babies. In a recently published pilot study, scientists describe sifting through dirty diapers in infants and finding an average of 36,000 nanograms of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) per gram of feces, 10 times the amount found in adult feces. . They even found it in the first feces of newborns. PET is an extremely common polymer known as polyester when used in clothing, and it is also used to make plastic bottles. The discovery comes a year after another team of researchers calculated that preparing hot infant formula in plastic bottles severely erodes the material, which could dose babies with millions of microplastic particles per day, and may -being nearly a billion per year.
Although adults are bigger, scientists believe that, in some ways, infants are more at risk. In addition to bottle-feeding, babies could ingest microplastics in a dizzying number of ways. They usually put everything in their mouths, plastic toys of all kinds, but they also chew on tissue. (Microplastics that come off of synthetic textiles are more accurately called microfibers, but they are still plastic.) Baby food is packaged in single-use plastics. Children drink from plastic cups and eat from plastic plates. The rugs they crawl on are often polyester. Even hardwood floors are covered with polymers that remove microplastics. All of this could generate tiny particles that children breathe or swallow.
Indoor dust is also emerging as a major route of exposure to microplastics, especially for infants. (In general, indoor air is absolutely lousy with them; every year you could inhale tens of thousands of particles.) Several studies of indoor spaces have shown that every day in a typical household, 10,000 microfibers can land on it. a single square meter of soil, having flown away clothes, sofas and sheets. Infants spend much of their time crawling through material, wiggling the deposited fibers, and throwing them into the air.
“Unfortunately, with the modern way of life, babies are exposed to so many different things that we don’t know what kind of effect they can have later in life,” says Kurunthachalam Kannan, environmental health scientist at the New York University School of Medicine and co-author of the new article, which appears in the journal Letters on environmental sciences and technologies.
The researchers did their tally by collecting the dirty diapers of six one-year-old children and passing the feces through a filter to collect the microplastics. They did the same with three samples of meconium – the first feces of a newborn baby – and stool samples from 10 adults. In addition to analyzing the samples for PET, they also looked for polycarbonate plastic, which is used as a lightweight alternative to glass, for example in spectacle lenses. To make sure they only counted microplastics coming from infants’ bowels, not their diapers, they excluded the plastic the diapers were made from: polypropylene, a separate polymer from polycarbonate and PET.
Overall, PET concentrations were 10 times higher in infants than in adults, while polycarbonate levels were more consistent between the two groups. Researchers found smaller amounts of both polymers in meconium, suggesting babies are born with plastics already in their system. This echoes previous studies that found microplastics in human placentas and meconium.
What all of this means for human health – and, more urgently, the health of infants – scientists are now rushing to find out. Different varieties of plastic can contain at least 10,000 different chemicals, a quarter of which are of concern to humans, according to a recent study by researchers at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. These additives are used for all kinds of plastic manufacturing purposes, such as providing flexibility, additional strength, or protection against UV bombardment, which degrades the material. Microplastics can contain heavy metals like lead, but they also tend to accumulate heavy metals and other pollutants as they tumble into the environment. They also easily develop a microbial community of viruses, bacteria, and fungi, many of which are human pathogens.
Alarming new study finds infants’ feces contain 10 times more polyethylene terephthalate (polyester) than adult feces. #microplastics #numbers #plastics #PET
Of particular concern is a class of chemicals called endocrine disruptors, or EDCs. The infamous plastic ingredient bisphenol A, or BPA, is one such EDC that has been linked to various cancers.
“We should be concerned because EDCs in microplastics have been shown to be linked to several adverse outcomes in human and animal studies,” says Jodi Flaws, reproductive toxicologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign , who led a 2020 Endocrine Society study on plastics. (She was not involved in this new research.)
“Some of the microplastics contain chemicals that can interfere with the normal functioning of the endocrine system.”
Infants are particularly vulnerable to endocrine disruptors because their body’s development depends on a healthy endocrine system. “I firmly believe that these chemicals affect the early stages of life,” says Kannan. “It’s a vulnerable time.”
This new research adds to a growing body of evidence that babies are highly exposed to microplastics.
“This is a very interesting article with very disturbing figures,” said Deonie Allen, a microplastics researcher at the University of Strathclyde, who was not involved in the study. “We need to look at everything a child is exposed to, not just their bottles and toys. “
Since infants shed microplastics in their stool, this means that the intestine could absorb some of the particles, just as it would absorb nutrients from food. This is called translocation: particularly small particles can pass through the intestinal wall and end up in other organs, including the brain. Researchers actually demonstrated this in carp by feeding them plastic particles, which moved through the gut and made their way to the head, where they caused brain damage that manifested itself. by behavioral problems: compared to control fish, those with plastic particles in the brain were less active and ate more slowly.
But it was done with very high concentrations of particles and in an entirely different species. While scientists know that EDCs are bad news, they don’t yet know what level of exposure to microplastics it would take to cause problems in the human body. “We need a lot more studies to confirm the doses and types of chemicals in microplastics that cause side effects,” says Flaws.
In the meantime, microplastics researchers say you can limit children’s contact with the particles. Do not prepare formula with hot water in a plastic bottle – use a glass bottle and transfer it to the plastic bottle once the liquid reaches room temperature. Vacuum and sweep to keep floors free of microfibers. Avoid plastic packaging and containers whenever possible. Microplastics have contaminated every aspect of our lives, so while you will never get rid of them, you can at least reduce your family’s exposure.