Plastics and infant feeding



     A recent medical study1 published in Environmental Health Perspectives highlights growing concern about potential health effects of plastics on the most vulnerable populations – pregnant and nursing women, infants and young children. The Harvard study found levels of Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) in the urine of babies being cared for in intensive care units. The recorded levels  were up to 50 times higher than those found in average populations. DEHP is a plasticizer used to  soften the vinyl (PVC) used in tubing and intravenous bags. DEHP is transferred to the babies when it leaches from the plastic walls of the vinyl into the infants’ feeding solutions. In animal studies, DEHP has been shown to be a potential reproductive toxin that damages the male reproductive system.


     While the results of the Harvard study are shocking, they are not surprising. Children are now at risk of exposure to over 85,000 chemicals2, only seven per cent of which have been tested for their toxicity. These chemicals include plastics, pesticides and a host of other synthetic products that cross the placenta and can cause developmental delays, cancers,  autoimmune disease such as allergies, DNA damage, low birth weight and congenital damage. Early childhood exposure3 is also problematic and has been linked to developmental delays and a number of neurological effects including learning disabilities, attention de.- cit hyperactivity disorder, autism and behavioural disorders.


     Plastics are particularly problematic because they are ubiquitous and can be found in practically every consumer item that we purchase: Clothing, furniture, food and beverage packaging, computers, car and home interiors, appliances and medical equipment all contain plastics. Plastic liners are used in cans of powdered baby formula, and plastic baby food jars and baby bottles are rapidly replacing glass ones. In total, we produce one trillion pounds of plastics every year.4   Unfortunately, only a fraction of these plastics has ever been tested for any potential health effects.


     Infants and young children are particularly vulnerable to any health effects. According to Dr. Philip Landrigan, Chairman of Community and  Preventive Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, and a former senior adviser to the US Environmental Protection Agency on Children’s Health and the Environment, "We’re conducting a vast toxicological experiment and we are using our children as experimental animals."5


     The problem begins in utero. Endocrine disrupting plastics, such as Bisphenol A, have an affinity for fatty tissue, which accumulates in women. This fatty tissue is then passed onto their growing babies. Because fetus’ cellular structures change so rapidly during embryonic and fetal growth, a toxic exposure at the wrong moment can permanently alter further development. According to Dr. Landrigan, the central nervous system is especially vulnerable. Currently, researchers are investigating the connection between ADHD and prenatal exposure to toxins.


    While plastics chemicals can be passed on to infants to a much lesser extent through breastfeeding, the immunological benefits provided by breastmilk outweigh any negative health impacts. "In fact, there is evidence that human milk with its species- specific optimal nutrition and its anti-inflammatory agents, including antioxidants, helps a child develop a stronger immune system and other potential protection against environmental pollutants and pathogens."6 (E. Bauchner)


      A study in Pediatrics concluded, "Long-term breastfeeding was found to be beneficial  to neurodevelopment, potentially counterbalancing the impact of exposure to these chemicals (i.e. organochlorine compounds) through breast milk."7 As stated in, Towards Healthy Environments for Children: Frequently asked questions about breastfeeding in a contaminated world:


     "The existence of chemical residues in breastmilk is not a reason for limiting breastfeeding. … Breastfeeding can help limit the damage caused by fetal exposure."8


     As babies grow, their faster metabolisms speed up their absorption of contaminants, further reinforcing the need for the immunological benefits of breastmilk. Given the toxicological adage, "The dose is the poison," children proportionally get larger doses of poison because of their smaller size. And since babies don’t excrete contaminants or store them away in fat in the same ways as adults do, they are even more vulnerable to the harmful effects of plastics and other man-made chemicals. As babies grow into toddlers, they spend most of their time closer to the ground where the highest concentrations of air pollutants settle. In addition, the bulk of carpeting and flooring is made from some form of plastic or other synthetic material.


     While it’s impossible to eliminate plastics entirely, there are a number of steps that mothers can take to help protect themselves and their babies


1. Breastfeed exclusively for the .rst six months of life to provide optimal immune protection.

2. Avoid plastic bottles and containers whenever possible. Buy food in glass or metal containers instead.

3. Use glass containers for storage.

4. Store expressed milk in glass containers.

5. Use natural .bers for carpeting and .ooring, particularly in areas such as nurseries, family rooms and kitchens, where babies are most likely to begin crawling.

6. Purchase baby clothes, bedding and toys that are made from all natural materials such as wool, cotton and wood. Check to see that wooden toys are .nished with non-toxic paints or dyes.

7. Avoid heating food in plastic containers, or storing fatty foods in plastic containers or plastic wrap.

8. Do not give young children plastic teething rings or toys.

9. Avoid all PVC and Styrene products.

10. Notify your local MP and let them know that you oppose the passage of Bill C-28, which is designed to fast track the approval of chemical food additives, pesticides, biologically active drugs, veterinary drugs and genetically altered constituents before they are adequately tested for safety. Ironically this proposed legislation is being promoted as "Smart Regulation."



Plastic Common Uses Adverse Health Effects

Polyvinyl chloride (#3PVC)

Food packaging, plastic wrap, crib bumpers, pacifiers, toys

Can cause cancer, birth defects, genetic changes, chronic bronchitis, ulcers, skin diseases, deafness, vision failure, indigestion, and liver dysfunction.

Phthalates (DEHP, DINP, and others)


Softened vinyl products manufactured with phthalates include, non-mouthing toys and children’s products, blood bags and tubing, IV containers and components, surgical gloves, breathing tubes

Endocrine disruption, linked to asthma, developmental and reproductive defects. Medical waste with PVC and phthalates is regularly incinerated causing public health effects from the release of dioxins and mercury, including cancer, birth defects, hormonal changes, declining sperm counts, infertility, endometriosis, and immune system impairment.



Many food containers for a variety of foods, throw-away hot drink cups, toys

Can irritate eyes, nose and throat and can cause dizziness and unconsciousness. Migrates into food and stores in body fat.

Polyethelyne (#1 PET)


Water and soda bottles, plastic bags, squeeze bottles, toys

Suspected human carcinogen.



Bedding, clothing, disposable diapers, food packaging, tampons, upholstery

Can cause eye and respiratory- tract irritation and acute skin rashes.

Polyurethane Foam


Cushions, mattresses, pillows

Bronchitis, coughing, skin and eye problems. Can release toluene diisocyanate, which can produce severe lung problems.



Clothing, blankets, disposable diapers, sanitary napkins

Can cause breathing difficulties, vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, weakness, headache and fatigue

Bisphenol A


Hard plastic baby bottles, can liners for concentrated milk- ased infant formula

Proven endocrine disruptor. Possible links to increases in testicular cancer, reproductive abnormalities, declining sperm counts.



For further information




  1. Green R, Hauser R, Calafat A M, et al, Use of di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate containing edical products and urinary levels of mono (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate in neonatal intensive care unit infants, Environmental Health Perspectives doi:10.1289/ ehp.7932, June 2005

  2. Durning AT, Williams-Derry C et al, Cascadia Scorecard 2004, Northwest Environment Watch, p. 65, 2004

  3. Landrigan PJ, Kimmel CA, Correa A, Eskenazi B. Children’s health and the environment: public  ealth issues and challenges for risk assessment. Environ Health Perspect. 2004 Feb;112(2):257- 5

  4. vom Saal, F, An interview with Fedrick vom Saal by Frontline, June 1998

  5. Landrigan, PJ,

  6. Bauchner, E, Environmental Contaminants in Human Milk, LEAVEN, Vol. 39 No.6, Dec 2003- Jan 2004, pp. 123-25

  7. Ribas-Fito, N. et al. Breastfeeding, exposure to organochlorine compounds, and neurodevelopment in infants. Pediatrics 2003; 111(5):580-585.

  8. IBFAN, LLLI, Linkages, WABA, Towards Health Environments for Children: Frequently asked questions about breastfeeding in a contaminated world,  2003



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