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Study Shows Babies Have More Microplastics in Their Bodies Than Adults

Baby chews plastic toy

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Key Takeaways

  • A study found that 1-year-old babies have up to 20 times more microplastics in their bodies than adults.
  • The microplastics themselves may not be as much cause for concern as the additives and chemicals that they contain.
  • More research is needed to look at the impact of microplastics on humans.

Babies often play and interact with plastic items from birth. From chewing on plastic teething rings to playing with plastic tub toys, children have a lot of exposure to plastic and its additives. According to a study released in September 2021, that exposure may be cause for concern.

Researchers with NYU Grossman School of Medicine found that some 1-year-olds have up to 20 times more microplastics in their bodies than adults. The focus is not as much on the microplastics themselves, but on the potentially toxic additives that coat the plastic. These additives can contribute to developmental problems in children.

While more research is needed to understand all of the ways that microplastics affect humans, experts say children having such a large amount in their bodies is a cause for concern.

All About the Study

The study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters, examined the feces of three infants, six 1-year-olds, and 10 adults aged 30 to 55. All of the participants were located in New York. Adults provided their own feces samples. The researchers gathered feces from the diapers of 1-year-olds and the infants' first bowel movement, called meconium, to see if they absorbed plastics in their system as a fetus.

The study authors analyzed the feces and found that the 1-year-olds had up to 20 times the amount of microplastics in their bodies than adults did. Furthermore, some of the newborns' stool also contained microplastics.

When examining the feces, researchers were looking for two specific types of plastics. The first, polyethylene terephthalate, is commonly used for water bottles, soft drink bottles, and condiment packaging. The other, polycarbonate, is used in stronger plastics, such as eyewear lenses, DVDs, and even cell phones. Some of the chemicals, especially when exposed to heat, can be toxic.

Study authors say they wanted to understand how young children could have such high levels of microplastics in their bodies. They say that looking at the kids' day-to-day activities helped to paint a clearer picture.

Kurunthachalam Kannan, PhD

If you really look at a 1-year-old baby’s lifestyle, they use lots of plastic materials, such as toys. They put everything in their mouths. Toys are one of the most important sources of microplastic exposure.

— Kurunthachalam Kannan, PhD

“If you really look at a 1-year-old baby’s lifestyle, they use lots of plastic materials, such as toys. They put everything in their mouths. Toys are one of the most important sources of microplastic exposure," explains Kurunthachalam Kannan, PhD, a professor in the department of pediatrics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.

Toys, however, are not the only form of microplastic exposure. The small plastic pieces, which can be about the size of a teaspoon, are found in everything from clothing to furniture and vehicle tires to shampoo bottles. Plastics are also found in unexpected items, like chewing gum, aluminum cans, disposable wet wipes, nail polish, and the netting on teabags.

High Levels of Microplastics Matter

Research has shown that microplastics carry toxic chemicals. It is how those toxins impact children and babies' bodies that is the real cause for concern.

Anna Lewis

[Chemicals from microplastics] are a really big deal because they are often endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which means that they affect development and reproduction.

— Anna Lewis

“Those are a really big deal because they are often endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which means that they affect development and reproduction," states Anna Lewis, a doctoral candidate in civil and environmental engineering at Duke University.

The endocrine system is made up of the body's hormones. And as experts note, there are particular times when hormonal systems are more vulnerable.

"When you’re a developing fetus, when you’re an infant, or when you’re a child going through puberty, those are the times when you are most susceptible to negative effects from endocrine-disrupting chemicals," Lewis notes.

Research shows that endocrine-disrupting chemicals can also cause problems with metabolism and the cardiovascular system. A 2020 research review notes that those same chemicals are also linked to hormonal cancers, infertility, learning disorders, and even autism spectrum disorders.

Experts admit that additional research on the impact of exposure to microplastics is needed. However, this study and others like it provide a foundation to understanding the amount of microplastics that people can absorb.

Protecting Little Ones

Plastic is a prevalent component in so many everyday items. It can take a lot of time and expense to purchase items that can minimize kids' exposure to plastics. But experts say it's a helpful step.

"The most important thing you can do is try to limit how much plastic you bring into your home. That’s a tall order. It's hard to avoid," Lewis acknowledges. While going out to purchase a whole new wardrobe or new dishes may not be feasible, there are other steps you can take.

Polyester, nylon, and synthetic fibers contain plastic. Try to wear clothing items that you have that aren't made of plastic, like cotton and linen. If you can afford to, replace some articles in your wardrobe that are made of plastic with cotton and linen items. You can check out local thrift stores for used options.

Avoid microwaving plastic bowls or cups. The heat can release harmful chemicals from the plastic into your food and drinks. Using microwave-safe porcelain or other microwave-safe materials is a better option.

Try not to purchase plastic teething rings and toys that your baby will readily chew on. Fruit pops and non-toxic teethers may be an option to soothe a teething infant.

Use containers for food that aren’t made of plastic. Grabbing a glass or Pyrex bowl for your baby's food can help limit exposure to plastics.

Ultimately, the risks associated with microplastics make the effort to limit them worth it. “Parents should do whatever they can to reduce exposure of their baby to plastics,” Dr. Kannan concludes.

What This Means For You

Plastic is all around us. While often a less expensive and readily available option, products made with plastic can contain harmful additives and chemicals. As the study notes, these toxins end up in babies' bodies in large amounts. Making an effort, no matter how small, to limit your child's exposure to microplastics is a healthy step in the right direction.

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3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Zhang J, Wang L, Trasande L, Kannan K. Occurrence of polyethylene terephthalate and polycarbonate microplastics in infant and adult feces. Environ Sci Technol Lett. Published online September 22, 2021. doi:10.1021/acs.estlett.1c00559

  2. Campanale C, Massarelli C, Savino I, Locaputo V, Uricchio VF. A detailed review study on potential effects of microplastics and additives of concern on human health. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2020;17(4). doi:10.3390/ijerph17041212

  3. Provencher JF, Covernton GA, Moore RC, Horn DA, Conkle JL, Lusher AL. Proceed with caution: The need to raise the publication bar for microplastics research. Science of The Total Environment. 2020;748. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.141426

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