Nano-childhoods - assessing the exposure of children to tiny man-made materials, including plastics, from infancy to adulthood

‘You are what you eat’ has long been an adage and call to eat fresh, home-made rather than processed foods, but with recent reports of microplastics contamination of global sea salt, bottled waters and even household dust, this can now be extended to what you eat, drink, touch and breathe, or simply ‘you are what you are exposed to!’ Indeed, recent findings have indicated that during a typical 20-minute meal more than 100 microplastic fibres may deposit on your plate.

Children and young people are especially at risk from exposure to microplastics and to a host of engineered nanoscale materials widely used in products targeting children, such as nano-silver-coated soft toys that are designed to be anti-bacterial, nano-titania and nano-zinc used in sunscreens. Numerous child-focused foods contain nanoscale materials, including tomato ketchup, chocolate, icing, chewing gum, sweets and lollies, with silica and titania being the most commonly used nanomaterials in food products.

Nanomaterials are also being developed for use in medicine, agriculture and clothing, making exposure multi-source and multi-route, primarily by ingestion and inhalation. Add microplastics (and their less studied but always present smaller siblings, nanoplastics) to the mix, and there is a continuous exposure to a cocktail of man-made materials that can start in utero, and continues (often without parental awareness) throughout the critical childhood developmental stages, and may over the longer term lead to unintended and potentially unexpected health consequences.

Potential consequences include developmental effects due to the estrogenic activity of compounds released by plastics (even those labelled as bisphenol A (BPA)-free), compromised immunity and impacts on the digestive system, and chronic lung and cardiovascular diseases, which have been linked to exposure to anthropogenic combustion-derived particles.

The tiny size of these particles, which makes them so attractive for a wide range of applications, can also be the source of potential harm – they may be able to cross biological barriers (such as the blood-foetus or blood-brain barriers) and may accumulate in our bodies, breaking down slowly and releasing their constituent parts (such as the BPA plasticisers recently reported to be present in 80 per cent of UK teenagers’ bodies). Indeed, environmental pollution was reported by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health to have caused between 76–100 deaths per 100,000 people in the UK in 2015, rising to >300 deaths per 100,000 people in highly polluted, low-income countries such as India. Environmental pollutants are also increasingly linked to age-related neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, and the large surface area of microplastics and nanoscale materials offers potential for the adsorption and transfer of other chemicals around the body.

A unique partnership of nano-scientists and childhood scholars from the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, under the umbrella topic nano-childhoods, are addressing the fundamental question of whether exposure to nanoscale materials, including plastics, during childhood leads to demonstrable health impacts. This collaboration opens up exciting avenues for theoretical innovation in the field, critically exploring the ways in which children’s lives are entangled with the material elements of their environments in ways that are unprecedented. Supported in the first instance via a Leverhulme fellowship, the research will be contextualised in theories of childhood, evolutionary responses to pollutants and whether children are adapting to new exposures continuously. This will allow the research team to tie together analyses of children’s lifestyles and everyday engagements with their environments with analyses of different levels of exposure to micro- and nano-materials and the consequent health effects.

This unique approach will also leverage the wider expertise across the University via the University’s Children and Childhoods Network, which brings together academics, PhD students and practitioners from all five of the University’s Colleges and provides a unique forum for collaborations in research, education, policy and practice, as well as from the Institute of Global Innovation’s research theme Environmental Pollution Solutions.

Health effects from pollutants typically take decades to be identified, and often rely on large groups having similar exposures to a specific pollutant over extended timescales, such as those occurring within worker populations. Thus, occupational exposure is the most common route for identifying health effects, for example, in miners (asbestos-related issues), in hairdressers (dye- and other chemical-related issues), in bar workers (passive smoking effects etc,), and typically works backwards from an identified health effect to identify the specific cause. However, with the rapid pace of commercialisation of nanoscale materials (faster than regulation can keep pace), and the explosion in public awareness of micro- and nano-plastics where even remote arctic areas are affected, there is a need for new, precautionary and responsibility based approaches to assess potential long-term health implications of sustained exposure to nano-enabled consumer products, which nowadays starts in earliest childhood.

Professor Iseult Lynch

Chair of Environmental Nanosciences; Theme lead for Environmental Sciences; Fellow of the Institute of Global Innovation (IGI), and Theme lead for IGI Emerging Theme ‘Environmental Pollution Solutions’

Professor Peter Kraftl

Chair in Human Geography, Leverhulme Research Fellowship on Plastic Childhoods

Dr Sophie Hadfield-Hill

Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, focusing in Children’s Geographies