Children are more exposed to microplastics than adults, expert says

Plastic breaks down into even smaller microplastics and nanoplastics. These plastics can be found almost anywhere in the world.

Researchers can now confirm the presence of microplastics in the placenta and in newborns. The possible effects of nano- and microplastics on children’s health and development heightens interest in this topic.

It is entirely possible that children are more exposed to microplastics than adults, which is similar to the greater exposure of children to many other environmentally toxic chemicals. »

Kam Sripada, neuroscientist, NTNU

Sripada is a neuroscientist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and heads the Center for Digital Life Norway (DLN), a national center for biotechnology, research and innovation.

Summarizing knowledge to date

Sripada is the first author of an article in Environmental Health Perspectives which examines what various researchers have discovered so far about nano- and microplastics, and the link of plastics to pregnancy and child health.

The group makes recommendations to researchers, authorities, industry and parents.

“Nobody knows exactly how many microplastics a child ingests. But several studies now suggest that today’s children are absorbing microplastics into their bodies from fetal age. This is concerning,” says Sripada.

The research group found a total of 37 different articles on nano- and microplastics in relation to pregnancy and childhood.

Lack of research

Research is lacking on the level of children’s exposure to nano- and microplastics, for example at school, in neonatology wards and through breast milk, breast milk substitutes and baby care products. This paucity of studies is partly due to the limitations of current technology for searching for very small particles.

“Although a lot of research is being done on microplastics, studies on the health effects of these plastic particles are limited. This applies in particular to the effects on children,” says Martin Wagner, associate professor of biology at NTNU.

What we do know is that from our mother’s womb and throughout our childhood, we are particularly exposed to environmentally toxic chemicals, as well as nano- and microplastics.

“Children do not have a fully developed immune system and are in a very important phase of their brain development. This makes them particularly vulnerable,” explains Kam Sripada.

Almost no studies have estimated the amount of plastic ingested by children. But the sources of plastic are plentiful.

Tips for less contact with plastic

Children can ingest microplastics in many ways. Even during pregnancy, they can absorb it through the placenta. Microplastics are present in many products, such as baby bottles, toys, textiles and food packaging. Researchers believe that breast milk and infant formula may also contain microplastics, but this is not known for certain.

Parents can reduce the amount of plastic children are exposed to in several ways.

When microplastic particles end up in household dust, children can come into contact with them while crawling and playing on the floor. Then they put their fingers in their mouths.

“It’s almost impossible to prevent children from ingesting plastic,” says Sripada.

But parents can reduce the amount of plastic their children are exposed to in several ways, according to the research group. Here are some ways:

  • Make sure the food children eat comes in contact with plastic as little as possible.
  • Clean the house properly and regularly with soap and water. Dust may contain microplastics.
  • Be careful when buying personal hygiene products and choose varieties with less plastic.
  • Are you improving your home? Choose building materials that do not contain PVC or other types of plastic.

Microplastic is not just plastic

Plastic comes in thousands of different forms. Microplastics not only contain plastic, but also carry a variety of toxic chemicals.

The plastic may contain phthalates and added metals for color, stabilization or as a biocide, for example. Many of these substances are harmful to the health of children. When microplastics find their way outside – for example, as particles from car tires – that plastic core is often coated in air pollution and car exhaust.

“Nano- and microplastics are so tiny that they can penetrate deep into the lungs and can also cross the placenta. At the same time, they carry dangerous chemicals with them. This is why we believe that nano- and microplastics can be a health risk to children,” says Sripada.

Finding the cocktail of chemicals that are in and around plastic with today’s technology is also very difficult.

“It’s hard to study microplastics in the body, and even harder to research nanoplastics,” says Wagner.

The research group calls for more research in the field that focuses on the early stages of life, such as the level of exposure of pregnant women to various plastic substances and how plastic can be transferred to the fetus.

Exposure varies by location and status

Although parents should be aware of the problem, controlling it will require more than just individual action.

“Authorities and industry bear the responsibility. We strongly encourage them to respect the precautionary principle,” says Sripada.

Central and local authorities can do a lot to ensure that the public is exposed to less plastic.

Regulations relating to plastic in various products, such as toys and baby bottles, and the management of plastic waste vary across the world. Children are thus exposed to very different amounts of plastic depending on where they live.

Previous research suggests that social status plays a role in how people are exposed to various toxic chemicals. People living in poverty are much more exposed, including to microplastics.

Industries that make the various plastic products for children and women need to be careful and ensure that these products release as little as possible, the research group says.


Journal reference:

Sripada, K. et al. (2022) A children’s health perspective on nano- and microplastics. Environmental Health Perspectives.

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