Protecting Children’s Developing Brains: Hazards of Plastics and Chemicals in Plastics

August 6 , 1:00 pm 2:00 pm EDT

A growing body of evidence shows that plastics and associated toxic chemicals contribute to neurodevelopmental disabilities and cognitive deficits in children. The global crisis of plastic production and waste is increasing exponentially. Today’s infants are born with their brains and bodies already burdened by plastics: micro- and nano-plastic particles have been found in the placenta and in newborns’ first stool, and further exposures occur through breastmilk and infant formula.

A briefing paper by Project TENDR synthesizes the latest science on fetal and early childhood exposures to plastics and the resulting harm to children’s developing brains. It outlines the widespread exposure to plastics and associated chemicals, such as ortho-phthalates, bisphenols, and flame retardants, which are linked to cognitive deficits and developmental disabilities in children.

The paper makes several recommendations to strengthen the global plastics treaty, including measures to address the toxicity and proliferation of plastics, and to regulate chemicals by class. Following the recent wrap-up of the third round of treaty negotiations in May, the treaty is set to begin the final session of negotiations in October 2024. 

In this webinar, Dr. Linda Birnbaum, Dr. Carmen Marsit, and Maureen Swanson will discuss how children’s developing brains are harmed by the effects of plastics and toxic chemicals in plastics.

July 2 , 1:00 pm 2:00 pm EDT

One in six children in the U.S. has a developmental disability and the prevalence of those disabilities has increased over the past decade. Families with low incomes and families of color have long faced disproportionate exposures to toxic chemicals and pollutants known to hinder brain development. These inequities stem from histories of discriminatory policies. 

A recently published literature review, initiated by Project TENDR (Targeting Environmental Neuro-Development Risks), sheds light on the disparities in neurodevelopmental outcomes in children in low-income families and communities of color in the United States. The scoping review, which analyzes more than 200 studies conducted between 1974 and 2022, maps existing literature on seven neurotoxicants, including combustion-related air pollution, lead, mercury, pesticides, phthalates, PBDEs, and PCBs. 

“As a result of discriminatory practices and policies, families with low incomes and families of color are currently and historically disproportionately exposed to chemicals without their knowledge or consent where they live, work, play, pray, and learn,” says co-lead author Dr. Devon Payne-Sturges.

As part of the review process, Project TENDR Health Disparities Workgroup members met with community and environmental justice leaders to identify possible areas of collaboration and opportunities for the research to support the work of the environmental justice organizations.

The review underscores the need for action at all levels of government to limit, lower, and eliminate existing pollutants and toxic chemicals in our environments in order to achieve environmental justice and health equity. It calls for stronger workplace protections and an end to siting chemical and plastics manufacturing facilities in/near communities of color and low-income communities.

In this 1.5 hour discussion hosted by CHE Alaska, Dr. Payne-Sturges and Dr. Tanya Khemet Taiwo, the lead authors of the report, will present their findings and recommendations. Dr. Kristie Ellickson will demonstrate a searchable database of studies on disparities in exposures and impacts. ACAT’s Environmental Health and Justice Director Vi Waghiyi will talk about neurodevelopmental disparities and health inequities specifically in Alaska Native children.

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. 


April 11 , 4:00 pm 5:00 pm EDT

Calling all School Food Directors! Nationwide, school cafeterias use billions of single-use plastics each year. School Food Directors are perfectly placed to end this expensive, wasteful practice and open major institutional pathways to healthier and more sustainable alternatives.

Please join Dr. Katie Wilson, Executive Director, Urban School Food Alliance (USFA) & Johannes van der Pool, Child Nutrition Services Director, Fremont Unified School District (California), to learn how school food directors can tackle cafeteria plastics in packaging, foodware or both. The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) and Cafeteria Culture (CafCu) are thrilled to present two leaders in the growing environmental and public health movement to reduce school cafeteria plastics.

From Our Speakers:
The Urban School Food Alliance, headed by Dr. Katie Wilson and representing 18 of the nation’s largest urban school districts, uses volume buying power to push distributors and manufacturers away from plastic packaging. Dr. Wilson will provide best plastic packaging reduction practices and show how districts of any size can tackle food packaging, such as condiment packets and pre-packaged food items like fruit cups and other grab-n-go items.

Johannes van der Pool, food director for a medium-size 3500 student district, will recount the roadblocks encountered and the steps taken to move six California schools to non-plastic reusable foodware and swap out condiment packets for dispensers.

This webinar is designed for school cafeteria stakeholders interested in less expensive, healthier and environmentally preferable cafeteria options, including school food nutrition staff, district administrators, procurement, sustainability, facilities and operations staff, teachers, school green team members, students and parents.

Dr. Katie Wilson, Executive Director, Urban School Food Alliance
Johannes van der Pool, Director of Child Nutrition Services, Fremont Unified School District

April 18 , 1:00 pm 2:00 pm EDT

In 2022, the UN launched treaty negotiations in Dakar, Senegal, for an internationally legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution. Health was not emphasized in the announcement of the treaty process. Yet the proliferation of plastics has produced large-scale consequences for endocrine diseases and dysfunctions.

Plastics are a source of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, commonly known as EDCs. These EDCs include phthalates (used in food packaging), bisphenols (used in can linings), and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS (used in non-stick cooking utensils).

Studies across the globe have documented widespread exposure to EDCs used in plastic materials, and their contribution to infertility and non-communicable diseases including obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers.  A recent study documented annual health costs of $250 billion/year related to plastics.

In this webinar, Dr. Leonardo Trasande will discuss research using data from the US National Institutes of Health Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) Program from 1998 to 2022. The study explored associations of 20 phthalate metabolites with gestational age at birth, birthweight, birth length, and birthweight for gestational age z-scores. The researchers also estimated attributable adverse birth outcomes, and the associated costs. 

This webinar will be moderated by Sharyle Patton, Director of Commonweal’s Biomonitoring Resource Center.

March 28 , 4:00 pm 5:00 pm EDT

While the adverse impacts of many toxic chemicals on physical health are widely recognized, their impacts on mental health are not as well understood.

A recently published literature review revealed a substantial body of evidence that links exposures to chemicals in our environment — including lead, PFAS and BPA — to children’s mental health symptoms such as anxiety and depression. It examined prenatal and childhood chemical exposures and mental health problems.

The review acknowledges the need to view this as an environmental justice issue. Children in low-income and communities of color are disproportionately burdened with harmful chemical exposures and thus face potentially increased risk.

In this webinar, CHE-Alaska will host Dr. Ashley James and Pangunnaaq Vi Waghiyi to discuss environmental chemical exposures and their impact on children’s mental health.

Dr. James, a Physical Scientists with the US Environmental Protection Agency, will present her recently published literature review on environmental chemical exposures and mental health outcomes in children. ACAT’s Environmental Health and Justice Director Vi Waghiyi will discuss how mental health disparities in Alaska Native youth demonstrate this as an issue of environmental injustice.