Study Finds Concerning Evidence of Microplastics in Human Breast Milk

October 18, 2022 3 minute read

New Mother Nursing

Resonance announced last month a regular feature Insights series that included published academic and other research that resonates with the work we and others do in the development, sustainability, and impact space, but typically sits behind a paywall.

This is often the tedious but important work of science journalism as well – to bring to light through accessible writing those complex challenges affecting us, often environmentally, socially, and economically, through the lens of scientific and technical subject matter.

In our first Research that Resonates piece, we featured five articles focused on the theme of Microplastics in marine environments, and although we planned to shift topics this month, new research results stopped us in our tracks.

This past week, a study appeared in the Journal Polymers reporting microplastics had been detected in human breast milk for the first time, and researchers say their findings leave them greatly concerned about the potential health implications for babies.

The Findings Of This Study Indicate Human Exposure to MPs is Inevitable 

There is already an established research record that indicates infants are especially vulnerable to chemical contaminants. Plastics often contain harmful chemicals such as phthalates, and those chemicals have been found in breast milk before. Prior research has also shown toxic effects of microplastics (also referred to as MPs) in lab animals, marine wildlife, and in human cell lines. However, the impact on living humans is still unknown. 

In this study, samples were taken from 34 healthy mothers, a week after giving birth in Rome, Italy. Microplastics were detected in 75% of those samples. In attempt to determine the origin of the microplastic particles found in breast milk, the microparticles were classified according to their shape, color, dimensions, and chemical composition. The breast milk samples were collected, stored, and analyzed without the use of plastics and control samples were also processed to rule out contamination.

The most abundant MPs found in samples were composed of polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride, and polypropylene, with sizes ranging from 2 to 12 µm. MP data were statistically analyzed in relation to specific patients’ data (age, use of personal care products containing plastic compounds, and consumption of fish/shellfish, beverages, and food in plastic packaging), but no significant relationship was found.

Given these results, the team suggests that the ubiquitous presence of microplastics in the environment makes human exposure inevitable. Crucial to infant health, the team suggests it will be important to assess ways to reduce exposure to these contaminants during pregnancy and lactation. This was similar advisement when the team found microplastics in human placentas in 2020 in a separate study.

“It will be crucial to assess ways to reduce exposure to these contaminants during pregnancy and lactation. But it must be stressed that the advantages of breastfeeding are much greater than the disadvantages caused by the presence of polluting microplastics.”

- Valentina Notarstefano, PhD

Other recent research revealed that humans consume or intake some 50,000 MPs annually through food, water and inhalation. Recent studies reported in The Guardian have found bottle-fed babies are likely to be swallowing millions of microplastics a day and cow’s milk can contain microplastics.

“Studies like ours must not reduce breastfeeding of children, but instead raise public awareness to pressure politicians to promote laws that reduce pollution,” stated Dr. Notarstefano. 

While specific microplastic risk factors were not identified in this small study, Notarstefano said: “We would like to advise pregnant women to pay greater attention to avoiding food and drink packaged in plastic, cosmetics and toothpastes containing microplastics, and clothes made of synthetic fabrics.”

Addressing Microplastics Pollution Is Complex, Important, And Requires Collaboration

Plastics pollution is widespread and researchers have affirmed that microplastics contaminate the entire planet, from the summit of Mount Everest, to Antarctica to the deepest oceans. People consume the tiny particles via eating food and drinking water, as well as breathing them in, and they have been found in the faeces of babies and adults.

Once MPs enter the food chain, it is nearly impossible to remove due to particulate size, transport system complexity, and chemical properties and processes associated with sorbed chemicals. Given their extreme diversity (size, shape, properties and high levels of uncertainty in hazard and exposure estimates), MPs do not easily fit within traditional risk-based regulatory frameworks.

Addressing impacts, as well as MP pollution mitigation requires open collaboration between scientists, regulators, and policymakers, as well as citizens and stakeholders. It also requires a recognition of justice issues in that those who produce and consume the least amount of these pollutants are often on the receiving end of the greatest pollution-related impacts.

The level of intertwined complexity regarding MPs may require bold departures from conventional approaches.

In response to the growing devastation of plastics pollution, the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA) is advocating for a legally-binding, global plastics agreement by 2024. Proponents aim to address the full lifecycle of plastic, from fossil fuels extraction to end-of-life waste.

The UNEA cites collaboration across sectors—between governments, companies, foundations, NGOs, and others—as a core factor in achieving significant, sustainable impact. This will require research, innovations, and community-level participation in prevention and solutions.

Resonance Supports Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE)

As we have addressed in prior Insights, the circular economy offers critical frameworks for creating these collaborative systems and solutions. Multi-stakeholder initiatives like the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) provide support for public-private dialogue and collaboration. Becoming a member allows organizations to help set the stage for the next phase of progress toward addressing plastics pollution for cleaner oceans, and more sustainable economies.

We anticipate CE principles will be part of robust innovative approaches that will be part of our own collaborative work in global development, the environment, and sustainable impact, and will report on that, and our collective growing understanding of MPs, in future Insights. 

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If you are a corporate leader and would like to be a part of a discussion about these and other issues in the presidential transition, contact Resonance Strategic Partnerships Manager, Seth Olson.