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Plastics and the Health of Children and Mothers

Plastics enter the human body through skin, ingestion, and breathing dust.

Kyra Sarazen is co-author*

We live lives of convenience. We can buy and throw things away without much trouble. Fossil fuels power manufacturing and contribute to an enormous amount of plastic. Our throwaway lifestyle is considered a sign of progress. Is it?

It turns out that we are exposed to more chemicals than ever before in history, both in the air we breathe, water we drink and the products we use. Most of the tens of thousands of chemicals we’re exposed to are not regulated (see The Secret History of the War on Cancer). Some of these chemicals are endocrine disruptors, which means that they can enter our bodies and alter hormone activity, neurobiological development and overall wellbeing (Berger et al., 2015).

Here is one example. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is the third most widely produced plastic in the environment. We are constantly exposed to it inhalation of PVC dust, ingestion (in water and food) or through touch (entering the skin).

Two populations that are particularly at risk from plastic's effects include children and pregnant women.


From a developmental standpoint, we are born highly immature with many systems to be developed after birth. These include self-regulatory systems, such as the ability to regulate body temperature, metabolism, sleep cycles and heart rate. In order for our brains to develop these systems, we need attuned caregivers who keep us in optimal arousal while these systems complete themselves. Our early social and physical environments determine how effectively and efficiently these systems develop, making infancy a critical time in development. If the foundation for healthy brain development is not laid at an early age, there will be downstream effects that can impact the health and happiness of the child throughout life.

Chemicals in a child’s surroundings are part of the environment that shapes the expression of genes and the trajectory of the child’s life. Toxins that children come in contact with can have long-term consequences on their wellbeing. We focus on PVC.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) Exposure in Childhood

PVC is used in the making of plastic toys and teethers, which means that many infants come in contact with it on a daily basis. PVC can leach out of toys and be ingested when the infant puts the toy in the mouth, enabling it to enter the bloodstream (Berger et al. 2015). Once in the child’s body, PVC may alter neurobiological development, possibly undermining growth hormones, sex hormones and hormones linked to appetite and satiety, leading to obesity (Berger et al. 2015).

PVC has also been detected in school supplies, like folders, binders and backpacks, indicating that not only are infants at risk of exposure but so are our school-aged kids

In addition to being an endocrine disruptor, PVC has been found to play a role in allergies and asthma. More specifically, the phthalate molecule of PVC has the capacity to seep out of plastic toys and settle in water, soil, dust or food (Jaakkola & Knight, 2008). The presence of the toxin in the environment can then enter airways and produce unwanted effects. These effects include irritation of the airways and lungs, which can lead to asthma (ibid). Furthermore, phthalate can act as an allergen and cause allergic reactions when inhaled (ibid).

Other Plastics, Other Effects

Over the course of the 20th century, synthetic plastics became ubiquitous, but few studies have been done to examine not only the effects of their components but their combined effects. Several other plastics are known to damage health. Bisphenol-A (BPA, a flexible plastic used in plastic bottles and toys) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBEs, used in electronics and textiles as a flame retardant) disrupt the endocrine system in fetuses and children (as well as adults), causing obesity and other health problems (Davis, 2007; Schrader-Frechette, 2007). The components of PVC (e.g., phthalates) and other plastics can enter the placenta and cause epigenetic changes in the fetus such as endocrine disruption.

Other plastics can have endocrine disruption effects, too:

  • “Chemicals that mimic or antagonize the actions of naturally occurring estrogens are defined as having estrogenic activity (EA)” and “chemicals having EA can produce many health-related problems, such as early puberty in females, reduced sperm counts, altered functions of reproductive organs, obesity, altered sex-specific behaviors, and increased rates of some breast, ovarian, testicular, and prostate cancers.” (See the whole article here; See a summary of the article here).

There is now evidence that BPA also affects social functioning, decreasing social capacities over multiple generations in mice (Wang et al., 2016; Wolstenholme et al., 2012). Withdrawal from social connection is a plague among US adults, associated with health problems and early death (Cacioppo et al., 2007).

It is unknown if PVC has such social effects, but anything that decreases a sense of wellbeing can influence our ability to cooperate and be open with others (Narvaez, 2014). Early life is the timeframe for developing trusting relationships with others so we behave cooperatively throughout life. Postnatal life must be nurturing to build the neurobiological structures needed. Endocrine disrupters could undermine the development of sociality in impairing our sense of wellbeing and openness to others.

What can we do?

We live in a world of plastic, but by being informed consumers, we can help to protect vulnerable populations in order to improve the wellbeing of all those in our communities. Here are some steps to take:

  • Support organizations and policies that seek to limit the usage of EA plastics (e.g., Plastic Pollution Coalition).
  • Instead of giving children plastic toys, provide them with toys made from wood or other natural materials.
  • Use alternative products (for ideas).
  • Support green chemistry.

See also (from pubmed):

Health risk of exposure to Bisphenol A (BPA). Konieczna A et al. Rocz Panstw Zakl Hig. (2015)

Fetal origin of endocrine dysfunction in the adult: the phthalate model. Martinez-Arguelles DB et al. J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. (2013)

PVC flooring at home and development of asthma among young children in Sweden, a 10-year follow-up. Shu H et al. Indoor Air. (2014)

PVC flooring at home and uptake of phthalates in pregnant women.

The effects of phthalates in the cardiovascular and reproductive systems: A review.

*Kyra Sarazen is a student at the University of Notre Dame


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Cacioppo, J.T., Hawkley, L.C., Crawford, L.E., Ernst, J.M., Burleson, M.H., Kowalewski, R.B., & Berntson, G.G. (2002). Loneliness and health: Potential mechanisms. Psychosomatic Medicine, 64, 407-417.

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