Shocking new research has shown that babies have up to 15 times more microplastic in their bodies than adults. This worrying new evidence will only add to fears that microplastic pollution has already got totally out of hand and will have serious effects for years to come, even if we begin to introduce measures to curb it right away.
Microplastics in babies’ bodies
In recent months, as part of our ongoing spotlight on the harmful industrial and natural chemicals that are playing havoc with our health, we’ve written about microplastics on a number of occasions.
Microplastics – tiny pieces of plastic that are either designed to be that size or become so through weathering – act as vectors for harmful xenoestrogens, as well as causing physical damage to organisms, especially microorganisms and juvenile organisms like baby fish.
The scale of the problem is already mind-boggling. Scientific models now suggest that microplastics are so ubiquitous that they are circulating like a ‘force of nature’, reaching the most remote places – even places humans have never set foot before.
Microplastics: a dangerous trojan horse for bacteria
A recent study revealed that the problem of oceanic microplastic contamination could be even worse than we had previously thought, not only in scale but also because microplastics could be acting as a Trojan horse for harmful bacteria such as E.coli, allowing the bacteria to be passed up the food chain.
Professor Steve Fletcher, Director of the University of Portsmouth’s Revolution Plastics initiative, said: “The findings in this research give us further insight into the potential harm microplastics are having on the food chain. It demonstrates how we could be vastly underestimating the effect that microplastics currently have. It is clear that further study is urgently needed.”
Researchers at the New York University School of Medicine compared stool samples from newborns, infants and adults to ascertain concentrations of two different kinds of plastic in them. All of the subjects were from New York State.
The team were looking for two common kinds of microplastic, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polycarbonate (PC).
First of all, they noticed that all of the samples contained at least one of the two types of microplastic they were looking for. This shouldn’t be surprising, given what we already known about the ubiquity of these substances.
The real shock came when they compared the baby samples to those of the adults. In the baby samples, there were at least TEN times as much microplastic. Yes, that’s right: TEN times.
So how could this be happening?
The researchers believe that the way babies are consuming such high levels of microplastics is through chew-toys like dummies and from crawling around on carpets that contain microplastics.
It’s worth noting, too, that microplastics have already been found in the placentas of mothers, raising the prospect that some of the microplastics found in the babies in the sample could have been passed to them by their mothers.
Although scientists once believed microplastics would just pass through the gastrointestinal tract without causing any harm, recent research suggests the smallest pieces are able to cross cell membranes and enter our circulation.
This is an obvious cause for concern, and all the more so because research on microplastics in lab animals has caused cell death, inflammation and metabolic disorders.
Human research is also beginning to substantiate these potential harms. A new study has shown, for instance, that microplastics can alter the shape of human lung cells and affect their functioning.
As a press release for the research notes: “After only a few days, the scientist began to observe some strange changes take pace, finding that the plastic particles caused the cells’ metabolism to slow down and hampered their proliferation and growth.”
The microplastics didn’t kill the lung cells, but they did alter their function and integrity in ways that are seriously worrying and suggest that people with lung conditions could be at elevated risk of harm from these microscopic pieces of plastic.
Microplastics and xenoestrogen pollution
It’s already well known, too, that microplastics are carriers of toxic xenoestrogens, industrial chemicals that have disastrous gender-bending effects. These chemicals are believed to be one of the principal causes of a calamitous decline in fertility that could bring about the end of human reproduction as we know it.
By 2045, according to Professor Shanna Swan, the majority of men may no longer be able to reproduce because of the effects of harmful chemicals from a variety of common household sources.
“We’re about 40 years behind global warming, in terms of awareness,” she says – yet the threat to human survival is just as great as, if not greater than, our concerns about greenhouse gas emissions.
According to Swan’s projections from the available data, by 2045 the sperm count of the median man will reach zero – meaning that one half of all men will have no sperm at all, and the other half will have an amount that is barely more than zero. Functionally, all men will be infertile.
The implications should be obvious: no sperm, no babies. Such a scenario has already been dubbed ‘Spermageddon’.
But it’s not just xenoestrogens that are responsible for the precipitous decline in male fertility we’re witnessing. Swan also points to a variety of other factors that seem to be at work, including the use of contraceptives, obesity, smoking and ‘cultural shifts’, a rather vague term which would have deserved further explanation.
Could it be that as men behave – or are given less room to behave – in less stereotypically manly ways, they may actually become so? There may be other biological factors at work too, she suggests, pointing to the collapse in testosterone levels in western men over the last half century.
While a reduction in testosterone levels is a fact of life for all men as they age – after the age of 30, a man can expect to lose 1% of his natural testosterone every year for the rest of his life – this natural reduction pales in comparison with the society-wide collapse in T levels that has occurred over the second half of the twentieth and the first quarter of the twenty-first century.
Men today have considerably less T than men of the same age even a single generation ago. A 2007 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism showed a significant reduction in the T levels of men since the 1980s. A 60-year-old American man in 2004, for example, had 17% less testosterone than a 60-year-old American man in 1987.
While the collapse of testosterone is likely to be linked to the ubiquity of the xenoestrogenic chemicals Swan warns about, sedentary lifestyles and the consumption of phytoestrogens are also likely to be playing a large role.
All in all, it adds up to a witch’s brew of environmental, social and biological factors that are making it ever harder for men to maintain their masculinity and fulfil their biological purpose.
And this new evidence, that babies appear to be suffering disproportionately at a time when their developing bodies are most vulnerable, should only steel us to tackle this problem head on. Only time will tell if we have the good sense, and the courage, to do so.