From Womb to World, Plastics Harm Babies: How to Protect Their Health

From inside of the womb to outside in the world, plastic harms babies. This Mother’s Day, we are shedding light on the health risks of plastics and what you can do to avoid them, to help keep you and your little one healthier.

Plastic poisons all people, but some people are harmed worse than others. With their sensitive hormones and immune systems, and developing bodies, unborn babies, infants, children, and pregnant people are among those most vulnerable to the toxic impacts of plastic. 

For these populations, exposure to plastic pollution—a term which encompasses all plastic, plastic chemicals, plastic particles, and sources of industrial frontline pollution—is especially dangerous. Plastic pollution has been linked to serious health issues in this vulnerable group, including asthma, cancer, early puberty, fertility issues, and increased rates of miscarriage and preterm birth.

This information is alarming and worrisome. Yet, if you’re pregnant, or are already a parent or guardian caring for a young person, it’s important to know that there are things you can do to better protect your own health and that of your child.

Plastic Chemicals Make Hormones Go Haywire

Unborn babies, infants, and children have less developed immune systems and bodies that are significantly impacted by the function—or dysfunction—of their hormones and hazardous chemical exposure. Hormones are like the conductor of an orchestra, and these natural chemicals tell your body and its systems how and when they should turn up or turn down. In young people, functioning hormones are especially important for healthy growth, development, and regulation.

Plastics contain any mix of more than 16,000 chemicals, of which at least 4,200 (or 26%) of these are highly hazardous to human and environmental health. Many chemicals added to plastics during manufacturing—including benzophenones (which act as UV filters), bisphenols, and phthalates (plasticizers)—are known to interfere with the body’s hormones. The chemicals released during industrial processes linked to fossil fuel and plastics extraction, production, storage, transportation, and disposal, such as dioxins, also interfere with the body’s delicate hormone system.

Hormone-disrupting chemicals mimic, block, or otherwise interfere with the body’s hormones and cause problems throughout our bodies. Even at relatively low levels of exposure, these chemicals can cause harm. This is especially true in pregnant people, whose hormone systems kick into overdrive during and after pregnancy, and in babies, children, and youth whose hormone systems are also extremely active to guide healthy growth and development.

Some of the severe health problems linked to hormone-disrupting chemicals in children, infants, and unborn babies include: Cancer; neurodevelopmental problems; and metabolism disorders such as obesity, thyroid diseases, and reproductive and fertility issues. PFAS, a common plastic additive that lends nonstick qualities to cooking pans and food packaging, and waterproofing on synthetic rain jackets, in addition to pollution from petrochemical plants—which are used to refine plastic’s ingredients—are strongly linked to infertility in females.

Pregnant people with detectable levels of phthalates, an extremely common plastic additive found in everything from vinyl flooring to plastic food packaging, in their bodies are more likely to experience pre-term birth of their babies and other birth complications. In the womb, plastic’s chemicals can impair development of a baby’s brain and vital organs, leading to poor prenatal growth and future health problems. Babies, children, and youth exposed to plastic’s many forms of pollution may experience early puberty, metabolic problems like obesity, and other serious health problems.

Toxic Chemicals in Breast Milk and Baby Products

The environment, food, and water are increasingly contaminated with plastic particles and the hormone-disrupting chemicals they carry as plastic production increases and plastic pollution worsens. Babies are exposed to plastic particles and chemicals from teething toys, synthetic clothing and textiles, plastic baby products like bottles and diapers, and household dust. Unfortunately, even breast milk is polluted with plastic and plastic chemicals, and microplastics and endocrine-disrupting plastic additive chemicals like phthalates have been detected in the urine of breast-fed infants. Infants who are fed formula prepared in plastic (polypropylene) bottles ingest millions of plastic particles per day

These pollutants affect public areas as well, like playgrounds and outdoor spaces, where babies and children recreate with their schoolmates, teachers, parents, and guardians. Playgrounds were found to have microplastics that held an average of five times higher concentration levels than areas outside this zone, due to plastic play equipment and ground coverings like artificial turf. Widespread use of plastics around children means that plastic particles and hormone-disrupting chemicals are widely found in children’s plastic toys, and in school supplies and classrooms

Scientists are finding more and more evidence of microplastics in human placentas, on both the maternal and fetal sides. Microplastics have been found in the uteruses of women who have had multiple miscarriages. People born today are exposed to plastic pollution inside of the womb and in their first moments of life onward.

Environmental Injustice, Pregnancy, Babies, and Children

Sadly, some of the world’s infants, children, unborn babies, and pregnant people are more severely exposed to plastic pollution due to the environmental injustices compounding plastic’s devastating effects. 

This is true of people in poor, Black, People of Color, and Indigenous communities as well as communities in the Global South. Unfortunately, these most vulnerable populations are often least represented in the majority of the research and discussion surrounding the urgent problem of plastic pollution. This is a further injustice, as well as a glaring and life-threatening hole in global public health. Plastic pollution encompasses not just plastic itself, but its entire existence starting with the extraction and refining of fossil fuels, to plastic’s eventual disposal in landfills or incinerators, or as “waste” shipped overseas, often to the Global South. There, plastic is dumped and sometimes burned, and picked through by about 20 million people worldwideusually by women and children who are underpaid and under- or unprotected from the dangers of plastic pollution while they work. Because their bodies maintain higher levels of fat, women are susceptible to being harmed by the toxic chemicals in plastics which often accumulate in the body’s fat cells.

Toxic air on the frontlines of petrochemical and plastics development is linked to pre-term and low-weight births and preeclampsia, a sometimes fatal pregnancy complication. Other research has indicated that industrial air pollution and high temperatures linked to the climate crisis are also related to a higher incidence of stillbirth.

If you’re a mother, or a mother-to-be, you might be wondering what you can do to minimize your exposure to plastic pollution and its toxic impacts. Thankfully, despite all of this disturbing and worrisome news, there are steps you can take to better protect the health of you and your child. Find out how to Take Action below.

Take Action

Parents and guardians can best protect the health of their children and themselves by learning about the dangers of plastic pollution. Projects like the Healthy Pregnancy Guide and Healthy Baby Guide, developed by Plastic Pollution Coalition in partnership with MADE SAFE®, offer essential guidance and insight for minimizing exposure to toxins during pregnancy and infancy, into childhood. These resources can also encourage healthier pregnancy lifestyle habits, reducing risks to the health of newborns and parents.

Besides taking individual actions to reduce the risks of plastic pollution exposure, we need wider change on the community level to better protect our health. Many parents, teachers, and students have taken action to reduce the amount of plastics in their schools, and you can too.

Reducing reliance on materials that contribute to pollution and harm human health also requires that governments incentivize and support truly sustainable alternatives to conventional plastic products. If you’re in the U.S., you can call on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ban plastic from school lunchrooms, and encourage use of healthy plastic-free reusable alternatives. 


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