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Modern children consume a catastrophic amount of microplastics: research

A lot of microplastics found in children's feces, reports Wiredbased on the results of a recent study.

Photo: Shutterstock

Whenever a plastic bag or bottle decomposes, it disintegrates into smaller and smaller pieces that make their way into the nooks and crannies of the environment.

When you wash synthetic fabrics, tiny plastic fibers come off and seep into the sea. When you drive your car, plastic pieces fly off your tires and brakes. That is why literally everywhere, wherever scientists look, they find microplastics - particles of synthetic material less than 5 millimeters long.

They are found on the most remote mountain peaks and in the deepest oceans. They are carried by the wind over great distances to pollute once pristine regions such as the Arctic. In 11 protected areas in the western United States, 120 million shredded plastic bottles fall from the sky every year.

And now microplastics are coming out of babies. In a pilot study published today, scientists describe how they looked at dirty baby diapers and found an average of 36 nanograms of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) per gram of feces, 000 times more than adult feces. They even found it in the first feces of newborns.

PET is an extremely common polymer known as polyester and is used in clothing and plastic bottles. The discovery came a year after another group of researchers calculated that making hot mixtures in plastic bottles severely degrades the material, giving babies several million microplastic particles a day, perhaps almost a billion a year.

Although adults are larger, scientists believe that in some ways, babies are more exposed. In addition to drinking from bottles, babies can swallow microplastics in a myriad of dizzying ways. They have a habit of putting everything in their mouths - plastic toys of all kinds, but they also gnaw on fabric.

The microplastic that stands out from synthetic textiles is more specifically known as microfiber, but it is still plastic. Baby food is wrapped in disposable plastic. Children drink from plastic cups and eat from plastic plates. The carpets they crawl over are often made of polyester. Even hardwood floors are coated with polymers that release microplastics. Any of these can form tiny particles that children breathe or swallow.

Household dust is also becoming a major route of exposure to microplastics, especially for babies. The air in the room is completely unsuitable for them; you can inhale tens of thousands of particles every year. Several indoor studies have shown that 10000 microfibers can land on one square meter of surface every day in a typical household - floors, clothes, sofas, and sheets. Babies spend much of their time crawling on the floor, picking up loose fibers and tossing them into the air.

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“Unfortunately, in today's lifestyle, babies are exposed to so many different influences that we don't know what effect they might have in later life,” says Kuruntachalam Kannan, an environmental health scientist at the NYU School of Medicine and co-author of the new article that is published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters.

Researchers collected dirty diapers from six year olds and passed feces through a filter to collect microplastics. They did the same with three samples of meconium — the first feces of a newborn — and stool samples from 10 adults. In addition to analyzing samples for PET, they also looked for polycarbonate plastic, which is used as a lightweight alternative to glass, such as in eyeglass lenses. To make sure they only count microplastics that come from babies' gut and not their diapers, they ruled out the plastic that diapers were made from: polypropylene, a polymer other than polycarbonate and PET.

Overall, PET concentration was 10 times higher in infants than in adults, while polycarbonate levels were more even between the two groups. The researchers found lower amounts of both polymers in meconium, suggesting that babies are born with the plastic already present in their bodies. This echoes previous studies that found microplastics in the human placenta and meconium.

What all this means for human health - and more importantly, for the health of children - scientists are now in a hurry to find out.

According to a recent study by scientists from ETH Zürich in Switzerland, different types of plastics can contain any of at least 10 different chemicals, a quarter of which cause negative effects in humans.
These additives serve all types of plastics, for example to provide flexibility, extra strength or UV protection, which degrades the quality of the material.

Microplastics can contain heavy metals such as lead, but they also tend to accumulate heavy metals and other pollutants when released into the environment. They also easily grow the microbial community of viruses, bacteria and fungi, many of which are pathogens to humans.

Of particular concern is the class of endocrine disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, that disrupt hormones and are associated with reproductive, neurological and metabolic problems such as increased obesity. The infamous plastic ingredient bisphenol A, or BPA, is one such EDC that has been linked to various types of cancer.

“We should be concerned because EDCs in microplastics have been shown to be associated with several adverse outcomes in human and animal studies,” says Jody Flos, a reproductive toxicologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who led the 2020 study. "Some microplastics contain chemicals that can interfere with the normal functioning of the endocrine system."

Babies are especially vulnerable to EDC as their development depends on a healthy endocrine system. “I strongly believe that these chemicals do affect the early stages of life,” says Cannan. "This is a vulnerable period."

This new study confirms the growing evidence that babies are highly exposed to microplastics. "This is a very interesting article with very alarming numbers," said Deony Allen, a microplastics researcher at the University of Strathclyde, who was not involved in the study. "We need to study everything that affects the child, not just his bottles and toys."

Photo: Shutterstock

Because babies excrete microplastics in their feces, this means that the intestines can absorb some of the particles, like nutrients from food. This is known as translocation: especially small particles can pass through the intestinal wall and into other organs, including the brain.

The researchers actually demonstrated this in carps by feeding them plastic particles that travel through the intestines and into the head, where they cause brain damage, which manifests itself in behavioral problems: Compared to control fish, fish with plastic particles in the brain were less active and ate more slowly. ...

But this was done with very high particle concentrations and with completely different species. While scientists know EDC is bad news, they don't yet know what level of exposure to microplastics can cause problems in the human body. “We need a lot more research to confirm the doses and types of chemicals in microplastics that have adverse effects,” says Flos.

You may be interested in: top New York news, stories of our immigrants and helpful tips about life in the Big Apple - read it all on ForumDaily New York.

Microplastics researchers, meanwhile, argue that it is possible to limit children's contact with particles. Don't mix hot water in a plastic bottle - take a glass bottle and pour the formula into a plastic bottle as soon as the liquid reaches room temperature.

Vacuum and sweep to keep microfibers free. Avoid plastic wrappers and containers whenever possible. Microplastic has polluted every aspect of our lives, so while it never gets rid of it, you can at least reduce its impact on your family.

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Miscellaneous In the U.S. babies pollution microplastic PAT microfiber Environmental Science and Technology Letters ETH Zurich EDC
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