Nano Nightmare: Billions of Nanoplastics Released When Microwaving Baby Food Containers

Lead Image: Kazi Albab Hussain (left) holds his son while removing a plastic container of water from a microwave. Hussain and colleagues at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln have found that microwaving such containers can release up to billions of nanoscopic particles and millions of microscopic ones. Credit: Craig Chandler, University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Exposure to particles from baby food containers kills up to 75% of cultured kidney cells.

The fastest way to heat food and drink might also rank as the quickest route to ingesting massive quantities of minuscule plastic particles, says new research from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

Experiments have shown that microwaving plastic baby food containers available on the shelves of U.S. stores can unleash a staggering number of plastic particles. In some instances, there were more than 2 billion nanoplastics and 4 million microplastics per square centimeter of the container.

Implications on Health

While the health effects of ingesting micro- and nanoplastics are not fully understood, the Nebraska team found that 75% of cultured embryonic kidney cells died after two days of exposure to these particles. A 2022 report from the World Health Organization recommended limiting exposure to such particles.

“It is really important to know how many micro- and nanoplastics we are taking in,” said Kazi Albab Hussain, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. “When we eat specific foods, we are generally informed or have an idea about their caloric content, sugar levels, other nutrients. I believe it’s equally important that we are aware of the number of plastic particles present in our food.

“Just as we understand the impact of calories and nutrients on our health, knowing the extent of plastic particle ingestion is crucial in understanding the potential harm they may cause. Many studies, including ours, are demonstrating that the toxicity of micro- and nanoplastics is highly linked to the level of exposure.”

Study Background and Experimental Process

The team began its study in 2021, the same year that Hussain became a father. While prior research had investigated the release of plastic particles from baby bottles, the team realized that no studies had examined the sorts of plastic containers and pouches that Hussain found himself shopping for, and that millions of other parents regularly do, too.

Hussain and his colleagues decided to conduct experiments with two baby food containers made from polypropylene and a reusable pouch made of polyethylene, both plastics approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In one experiment, the researchers filled the containers with either deionized water or 3% acetic acid — the latter intended to simulate dairy products, fruits, vegetables and other relatively acidic consumables — then heated them at full power for three minutes in a 1,000-watt microwave. Afterward, they analyzed the liquids for evidence of micro- and nanoplastics: the micro being particles at least 1/1,000th of a millimeter in diameter, the nano any particles smaller.

Findings and Implications

The actual number of each particle released by the microwaving depended on multiple factors, including the plastic container and the liquid within it. But based on a model that factored in particle release, body weight, and per-capita ingestion of various food and drink, the team estimated that infants drinking products with microwaved water and toddlers consuming microwaved dairy products are taking in the greatest relative concentrations of plastic. Experiments designed to simulate the refrigeration and room-temperature storage of food or drink over a six-month span also suggested that both could lead to the release of micro- and nanoplastics.

“For my baby, I was unable to completely avoid the use of plastic,” Hussain said. “But I was able to avoid those (scenarios) which were causing more of the release of micro- and nanoplastics. People also deserve to know those, and they should choose wisely.”

Further Research

With the help of Svetlana Romanova from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, the team then cultured and exposed embryonic kidney cells to the actual plastic particles released from the containers — a first, as far as Hussain can tell. Rather than introduce just the number of particles released by one container, the researchers instead exposed the cells to particle concentrations that infants and toddlers might accumulate over days or from multiple sources.

After two days, just 23% of kidney cells exposed to the highest concentrations had managed to survive — a much higher mortality rate than that observed in earlier studies of micro- and nanoplastic toxicity. The team suspects that kidney cells might be more susceptible to the particles than are other cell types examined in prior research. But those earlier studies also tended to examine the effects of larger polypropylene particles, some of them potentially too large to penetrate cells. If so, the Hussain-led study could prove especially sobering: Regardless of its experimental conditions, the Husker team found that polypropylene containers and polyethylene pouches generally release about 1,000 times more nanoplastics than microplastics.

Future Directions

The question of cell infiltration is just one among many that will require answers, Hussain said, before determining the true risks of consuming micro- and nanoplastics. But to the extent that they do pose a health threat — and that plastics remain a go-to for baby food storage — parents would have a vested interest in seeing that the companies manufacturing plastic containers seek out viable alternatives, he said.

“We need to find the polymers which release fewer (particles),” Hussain said. “Probably, researchers will be able to develop plastics that do not release any micro- or nanoplastics — or, if they do, the release would be negligible.

“I am hopeful that a day will come when these products display labels that read ‘microplastics-free’ or ‘nanoplastics-free.’”

The team reported its findings in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Reference: “Assessing the Release of Microplastics and Nanoplastics from Plastic Containers and Reusable Food Pouches: Implications for Human Health” by Kazi Albab Hussain, Svetlana Romanova, Ilhami Okur, Dong Zhang, Jesse Kuebler, Xi Huang, Bing Wang, Lucia Fernandez-Ballester, Yongfeng Lu, Mathias Schubert and Yusong Li, 21 June 2023, Environmental Science & Technology.
DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.3c01942

Hussain and Romanova authored the study with the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Yusong Li, Mathias Schubert, Yongfeng Lu, Lucía Fernández-Ballester, Bing Wang, Xi Huang, Jesse Kuebler, Dong Zhang and Ilhami Okur. The researchers received support from the National Science Foundation and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.

Kiran Fernandes

Kiran is your friendly neighbourhood tech enthusiast who's passionate about all kinds of tech, goes crazy over 4G and 5G networks, and has recently sparked an interest in sci-fi and cosmology.

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