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Baby Poop Is Loaded With Microplastics

Baby Poop Is Loaded With Microplastics

An alarming new study finds that infant feces contain 10 times more polyethylene terephthalate (aka polyester) than an adult’s.

Whenever a plastic bag or bottle degrades, it breaks into ever smaller pieces that work their way into nooks in the environment. When you wash synthetic fabrics, tiny plastic fibers break loose and flow out to sea. When you drive, plastic bits fly off your tires and brakes. That’s why literally everywhere scientists look, they’re finding microplastics—specks of synthetic material that measure less than 5 millimeters long. They’re on the most remote mountaintops and in the deepest oceans. They’re blowing vast distances in the wind to sully once pristine regions like the Arctic. In 11 protected areas in the western US, the equivalent of 120 million ground-up plastic bottles are falling out of the sky each year.

And now, microplastics are coming out of babies. In a pilot study published today, scientists describe sifting through infants’ dirty diapers and finding an average of 36,000 nanograms of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) per gram of feces, 10 times the amount they found in adult feces. They even found it in newborns’ first feces. PET is an extremely common polymer that’s known as polyester when it’s used in clothing, and it is also used to make plastic bottles. The finding comes a year after another team of researchers calculated that preparing hot formula in plastic bottles severely erodes the material, which could dose babies with several million microplastic particles a day, and perhaps nearly a billion a year. 

Although adults are bigger, scientists think that in some ways infants have more exposure. In addition to drinking from bottles, babies could be ingesting microplastics in a dizzying number of ways. They have a habit of putting everything in their mouths—plastic toys of all kinds, but they’ll also chew on fabrics. (Microplastics that shed from synthetic textiles are known more specifically as microfibers, but they’re plastic all the same.) Babies’ foods are wrapped in single-use plastics. Children drink from plastic sippy cups and eat off plastic plates. The carpets they crawl on are often made of polyester. Even hardwood floors are coated in polymers that shed microplastics. Any of this could generate tiny particles that children breathe or swallow. 

Small Plastic pellets on the finger

Indoor dust is also emerging as a major route of microplastic exposure, especially for infants. (In general, indoor air is absolutely lousy with them; each year you could be inhaling tens of thousands of particles.) Several studies of indoor spaces have shown that each day in a typical household, 10,000 microfibers might land on a single square meter of floor, having flown off of clothing, couches, and bed sheets. Infants spend a significant amount of their time crawling through the stuff, agitating the settled fibers and kicking them up into the air. 

“Unfortunately, with the modern lifestyle, babies are exposed to so many different things for which we don’t know what kind of effect they can have later in their life,” says Kurunthachalam Kannan, an environmental health scientist at New York University School of Medicine and coauthor of the new paper, which appears in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters

The researchers did their tally by collecting dirty diapers from six 1-year-olds and running the feces through a filter to collect the microplastics. They did the same with three samples of meconium—a newborn’s first feces—and stool samples from 10 adults. In addition to analyzing the samples for PET, they also looked for polycarbonate plastic, which is used as a lightweight alternative to glass, for instance in eyeglass lenses. To make sure that they only counted the microplastics that came from the infants’ guts, and not from their diapers, they ruled out the plastic that the diapers were made of: polypropylene, a polymer that’s distinct from polycarbonate and PET.

All told, PET concentrations were 10 times higher in infants than in adults, while polycarbonate levels were more even between the two groups. The researchers found smaller amounts of both polymers in the meconium, suggesting that babies are born with plastics already in their systems. This echoes previous studies that have found microplastics in human placentas and meconium.

What this all means for human health—and, more urgently, for infant health—scientists are now racing to find out. Different varieties of plastic can contain any of at least 10,000 different chemicals, a quarter of which are of concern for people, according to a recent study from researchers at ​​ETH Zürich in Switzerland. These additives serve all kinds of plastic-making purposes, like providing flexibility, extra strength, or protection from UV bombardment, which degrades the material. Microplastics may contain heavy metals like lead, but they also tend to accumulate heavy metals and other pollutants as they tumble through the environment. They also readily grow a microbial community of viruses, bacteria, and fungi, many of which are human pathogens.

Of particular concern are a class of chemicals called endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, which disrupt hormones and have been connected to reproductive, neurological, and metabolic problems, for instance increased obesity. The infamous plastic ingredient bisphenol A, or BPA, is one such EDC that has been linked to various cancers

“We should be concerned because the EDCs in microplastics have been shown to be linked with several adverse outcomes in human and animal studies,” says Jodi Flaws, a reproductive toxicologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who led a 2020 study from the Endocrine Society on plastics. (She wasn’t involved in this new research.) “Some of the microplastics contain chemicals that can interfere with the normal function of the endocrine system.” 

Infants are especially vulnerable to EDCs, since the development of their bodies depends on a healthy endocrine system. “I strongly believe that these chemicals do affect early life stages,” says Kannan. “That’s a vulnerable period.”

This new research adds to a growing body of evidence that babies are highly exposed to microplastic. “This is a very interesting paper with some very worrying numbers,” says University of Strathclyde microplastic researcher Deonie Allen, who wasn’t involved in the study. “We need to look at everything a child is exposed to, not just their bottles and toys.”

Since infants are passing microplastics in their feces, that means the gut could be absorbing some of the particles, like it would absorb nutrients from food. This is known as translocation: Particularly small particles might pass through the gut wall and end up in other organs, including the brain. Researchers have actually demonstrated this in carp by feeding them plastic particles, which translocated through the gut and worked their way to the head, where they caused brain damage that manifested as behavioral problems: Compared to control fish, the individuals with plastic particles in their brains were less active and ate more slowly.

But that was done with very high concentrations of particles, and in an entirely different species. While scientists know that EDCs are bad news, they don’t yet know what level of microplastic exposure it would take to cause problems in the human body. “We need many more studies to confirm the doses and types of chemicals in microplastics that lead to adverse outcomes,” says Flaws.

In the meantime, microplastics researchers say you can limit children’s contact with particles. Do not prepare infant formula with hot water in a plastic bottle—use a glass bottle and transfer it over to the plastic one once the liquid reaches room temperature. Vacuum and sweep to keep floors clear of microfibers. Avoid plastic wrappers and containers when possible. Microplastics have contaminated every aspect of our lives, so while you’ll never get rid of them, you can at least reduce your family’s exposure.


Matt Simon at Wired

Bottled water is 3,500 times worse for the environment than tap water, say scientists

Bottled water is 3,500 times worse for the environment than tap water, say scientists

Tap water is thousands of times better for the environment than bottled water, according to scientists. In fact, it takes three times as much water to produce a plastic bottle as it can hold.

This might not come as a surprise but researchers at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) have crunched the numbers to work out just how much better it actually is.

The research focused on Barcelona, Spain which is home to around 1.35 million people – nearly 60 per cent of whom consume bottled water at least some of the time.

They used something called a “life cycle assessment” which estimates the environmental impact of an item over its entire lifespan. That includes the extraction of raw materials, manufacturing, transportation, distribution, use and disposal.

In the US alone water bottle manufacturing takes 1.5 million barrels of oil every year – more than it would take to power 100,000 homes. And that is without the fossil fuel or emissions costs of transporting them to shops.

The ISGlobal study found that if every resident in Barcelona switched to bottled water, extracting the raw materials would cost more than €70 million and lead to the loss of 1.43 animal species every year.

This would be 1400 times more of an impact on ecosystems and 3500 times higher cost to the environment for resources, than if the whole city were to drink tap water instead.

Are there any health risks to tap water?

The use of bottled water has risen in recent years in part due to factors such as taste, odour, marketing campaigns and lack of public faith in the quality of tap water.

ISGlobal researcher Cristina Villaneuva says there have been substantial improvements in the quality of tap water in Barcelona over the last few years.

“However, this considerable improvement has not been mirrored by an increase in tap water consumption, which suggests that water consumption could be motivated by subjective factors other than quality.”


One of the problems is the perceived presence of chemical compounds such as trihalomethanes. In an innovative move, data about the lifecycle of bottled water was also compared to a framework that is used to measure health.

They found that any risk to health was small and adding a domestic filtration system reduced that risk considerably.

“Our results show that considering both the environmental and the health effects, tap water is a better option than bottled water, because bottled water generates a wider range of impacts”, says ISGlobal researcher Cathryn Tonne.



Above The Noise

Sir David Attenborough Backs New Tech That Can Recycle All Plastics

Sir David Attenborough Backs New Tech That Can Recycle All Plastics

Wildlife filmmaker Sir David Attenborough has appeared in a video campaign for a new plastic recycling technology in the U.K., alongside other naturalists calling for stronger protections for the world’s oceans.

The campaign heralds the start of construction in the U.K. of a groundbreaking recycling facility which the firm behind the technology claims will be the first in the world capable of recycling all types of plastic. The process offers hope that a much larger proportion of the 300 million tons of plastic trash produced annually worldwide could be reused, reducing the quantity of plastics that end up in the ocean.

“What’s so tragic about plastic pollution is that it is so totally unnecessary,” Attenborough says in the video, released by U.K. recycling firm Mura Technology. “The plastic in our oceans should never have found its way there in the first place.” 

Attenborough is joined in the video by the prominent marine biologist and campaigner Dr Sylvia Earle, and Jo Ruxton, producer of the 2016 Netflix documentary A Plastic Ocean.

The new recycling process, branded HydroPRS, took 12 years to develop and uses supercritical steam—steam that is superheated under great pressure—to break down plastics back into the oils and chemicals they were made from. Those components can then be used for a range of products, from new plastics to fuels. 

Full story by David Vetter at Forbes


How much plastic are you eating?

How much plastic are you eating?

What’s for dinner? Lego sushi, credit card burgers, or a well-done piece of PVC pipe? These examples may sound extreme, but can easily represent over time the cumulative amount of microscopic pieces of plastic we consume every day.

People could be ingesting the equivalent of a credit card of plastic a week, a 2019 study by WWF International concluded, mainly in plastic-infused drinking water but also via food like shellfish, which tends to be eaten whole so the plastic in their digestive systems is also consumed.

Plastic cards weighing 7 grams, which is equivalent to the amount of plastic that someone could eat in ten days, are displayed inside a tuna salad sandwich with a cup of milk.

Reuters used the findings of the study to illustrate what this amount of plastic actually looks like over various periods of time. In a month, we ingest the weight of a 4×2 Lego brick in plastic, and in a year, the amount of plastic in a fireman’s helmet. This may not sound like much, but it can add up. At this rate of consumption, in a decade, we could be eating 2.5 kg (5.5 lb) in plastic, the equivalent of over two sizable pieces of plastic pipe.

A plastic pipe weighing 1 kilogram, which is equivalent to the amount of plastic that someone could eat in four years, is displayed on a cutting board.

And over a lifetime, we consume about 20 kg (44 lb) of microplastic. Plastic production has surged in the last 50 years with the widespread use of inexpensive disposable products. As plastic is not biodegradable, but only breaks down into smaller pieces, it ultimately ends up everywhere, cluttering beaches and choking marine wildlife, as well as in the food chain.

Standing on the shoreline of a wildlife-protected saltmarsh in southern England, Malcolm Hudson, a professor of environmental science at the University of Southampton, shows Reuters small, bead-like plastic pellets that permeate the marsh. Hudson says that most research has been done on these microplastics, but there are increasing amounts of even smaller particles called nanoplastics in the environment that are far more difficult to detect, which we are likely ingesting as well.

Plastic toy beads weighing a total of 125 grams, which is equivalent to the amount of plastic that someone could eat in 6 months, are displayed inside a cereal bowl filled with milk.

“It could pass into our blood or lymphatic system and end up in our organs,” said Hudson.” Those plastic particles are little time bombs waiting to break down small enough to be absorbed by wildlife or by people and then potentially have harmful consequences.”

Full story by Mathew Stock at Reuters, Photography by Kim Kyung-Hoon


New plant-based plastics can be chemically recycled with near-perfect efficiency

New plant-based plastics can be chemically recycled with near-perfect efficiency

New plant-based plastics can be chemically recycled with near-perfect efficiency

Derived from plant oils, the new plastics were presented in a paper published Wednesday in Nature as low-waste, environmentally friendly replacements to the conventional fossil fuel-based plastics that enter natural ecosystems at a rate of millions of tons per year.

Most recycling performed today is mechanical recycling, in which plastic is sorted and sliced into pellets that are then used to create new plastic materials. Chemical recycling, in contrast, involves breaking down the long polymer chains of plastic with heat or solvents to retrieve the material’s initial monomer components.

One of the obstacles to developing chemical-recycling technology is also a reason why plastic is a useful material: the strong carbon-carbon bonds in its molecular structure. Polyethylene, the most common kind of plastic, requires at least 600 degrees Celsius to break those bonds to retrieve the monomers, and is chemically recycled at a rate lower than 10%.

“Stability of the hydrocarbon chains is rather a problem in that case,” said Stefan Mecking, the lead author of the study and the department chair of chemical materials science at the University of Konstanz in Germany. “To really break them down into small molecules needs high temperatures and is energy intensive, and also the yields are not that good.”

Full story by Zack Fishman at The Academic Times

The Big Lie of Recycling and ‘90s Environmentalism

The Big Lie of Recycling and ‘90s Environmentalism

“If the public thinks the recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment,” says Larry Thomas, who headed the main plastics industry group in the ‘90s.

As kids in the ‘80s and ‘90s, environmentalism meant turning off the water when you brushed your teeth and cutting rings on soda packs, so sea turtles didn’t choke. It meant watching Captain Planet on Saturday mornings: earth, air, fire, water, and inexplicably, heart, all joined together fighting the powers that would pollute. When we got a little older, it meant recycling, sorting different kinds of glass and packaging so that they could be remade into playground mats and backpacks.

I have been devastated to learn that, by and large, recycling plastics is a big lie. That, in the ’90s, we were all subject to a massive marketing campaign funded by the immensely profitable and thoroughly villainous plastics industry. That no more than 10% of the plastic that is recycled has gotten reused in other consumer products. That’s not nothing, given the mind-blowing amounts of garbage that we humans produce. But it’s not what we thought it was, and it’s not enough.

Full story by Lara Henneman at Medium

On the Web This Week, 10 October

On the Web This Week, 10 October

On the web this week, the world’s Top 20 polluters revealed, how the international cocaine trade damages the environment, and the fashion industry’s latest trend is sustainability.

Picture credit: Guardian Design

This week, The Guardian revealed the 20 fossil fuel companies whose relentless exploitation of the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves can be directly linked to more than one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the modern era.

New data from world-renowned researchers reveals how this cohort of state-owned and multinational firms are driving the climate emergency that threatens the future of humanity, and details how they have continued to expand their operations despite being aware of the industry’s devastating impact on the planet.

Picture credit: Reuters/Fabian Bimmer

Since nations signed on to the Paris Agreement four years ago, committing to collectively lower carbon emissions to below 2 degrees Celsius, progress across the globe has been uneven and, sometimes, even discouraging.

But there is good news. Austin, Athens, Lisbon, and Venice have joined 26 other major cities in steadily reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new analysis published by a coalition of cities known as C40, ahead of its annual World Mayors Summit in Copenhagen.

Picture credit: Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images

The Verge reports that the cocaine trade, and efforts to stop it, are causing $214.6 million in damage every year. Drug-related deforestation is also driving people out of the region, and making climate change worse.

Picture credit: New York Times

Of all the trends that emerged from fashion month, the four-week-long circuit of ready-to-wear shows in New York, London, Milan and Paris that ended last week, the one that trumped all others was neither a skirt length nor a color nor a borrowed reference. It dominated runways in every single city; it became so ubiquitous that it was almost a cliché.

Forget street wear. Sustainability was the hottest look of the day.

South Africans are being encouraged to ditch the electric stove and braai more. According to experts lighting a fire is less harmful for the environment.

“If you want to do your bit for the climate then you don’t have to give up braaing because braaing is in fact it is carbon neutral,” said Prof Bob Scholes from Global Change Institute.

Researchers have created a lightweight prosthetic limb from discarded plastic, which they say could save healthcare providers millions and help tackle pollution. The artificial limbs were made by grinding down plastic bottles and spinning the grains into polyester yarns which were heated to produce a light, sturdy substance that could be easily moulded.

If you’re concerned about your plastic usage, and would like a quality alternative, why not try one of these reusable water bottles?

Did you enjoy this week’s stories? Have a story you’d like us to cover? Leave a comment below and let us know!

Documentaries to watch on Prime Video

Documentaries to watch on Prime Video

We are now an Amazon affiliate! To celebrate, we’ve collected a few of our favourite documentaries on Prime Video for you to watch at your own pleasure. If you’re already a Prime subscriber, click Buy Now to be taken directly to primevideo.com, or if you’re not yet subscribed, click the banner to get a 30 day trial FREE!

The Rise Of Sustainability explores the rise of the concept of sustainability as it has gone from the fringes to the mainstream within just a few short decades driven by an environmental crisis on a global scale. The film looks at this new environmental context of the Anthropocene and the key structural transformations in our economy required to achieve sustainability.

Living the Change explores solutions to the global crises we face today through the inspiring stories of people pioneering change in their own lives and in their communities in order to live in a sustainable and regenerative way.

As a pristine wilderness and a native people are being wiped out to feed the world’s hunger for energy, what no one expected was for them to fight back. From the scientist whose research could ban the tar sands to director James Cameron’s dramatic intervention, this shocking documentary is a journey through the David and Goliath struggle playing out within the major environmental issue of our age.

This is a story about the clothes we wear, the people who make them, and the impact the industry has on our world. The price of clothing has been decreasing for decades, while the human and environmental costs have grown dramatically. The True Cost is a groundbreaking documentary that pulls back the curtain on the untold story and asks us to consider who really pays the price for our clothing?

Meet passionate teen innovators from around the globe tackling environmental threats in their own backyards while they navigate the doubts and insecurities of adolescence. Join these inspiring teenagers as they present their cutting-edge solutions at the largest convening of high school scientists in the world, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF).

On The Web This Week, 19 September

On The Web This Week, 19 September

On the web this week, the Global Climate Strike, trees planted on Robben Island and South Africa’s first road made from waste plastic.

Picture credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images

According to a new poll taken in eight countries, a majority of the public recognise the climate crisis as an “emergency” and say politicians are failing to tackle the problem, backing the interests of big oil over the wellbeing of ordinary people. The survey, which comes before what is expected to be the world’s biggest climate demonstrations on Friday, found that climate breakdown is viewed as the most important issue facing the world, ahead of migration, terrorism and the global economy, in seven out of the eight countries surveyed. If you’re interested in joining tomorrow’s historic Climate Strike, details of demonstrations across South Africa will be included at the bottom of this post.

Picture credit: Roger de la Harpe

Timeslive.co.za reports that a hundred and one indigenous trees were planted on Robben Island on Wednesday in celebration of late former president Nelson Mandela’s 101st birthday this year, as the first part of an initiative which will see 10,000 trees planted on the island over the next 5 years.

Picture credit: dotsure.co.za

Businesstech.co.za reports on a pilot program in the Eastern Cape which aims to use plastic waste to build roads. The technology has been used both in Africa and internationally, including Australia, Canada, Ghana, India, Kenya, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

Mother-and-daughter team Anna Hartebeest and Harriet Matjila have built Makhabisi Recycling into an inclusive green business that has created decent jobs for 60 people. 

Picture credit: Ton Kung / Shutterstock

Yes, big changes are needed, but little ones add up. These 20 simple lifestyle choices from Reader’s Digest can reduce your carbon footprint—and make a major impact.

GLOBAL YOUTH CLIMATE STRIKE / MAY 24, 2019. Over 500 students and other youth advocates across the Philippines joined today’s global youth climate strike in Manila, Philippines. LEO M. SABANGAN II.

And finally, the largest Climate Strike in history is happening worldwide tomorrow, 20 September 2019. If you’d like to join in, the details for demonstrations in South Africa’s major cities is as follows:

Johannesburg: Assemble at Pieter Roos Park, Corner of Victoria Ave and Empire Road, 10am

Durban: Assemble at the ICC , 11am

Pretoria: Assemble at the Union Buildings, 11am

Assemble: at The Greens, Corner of Cambridge & Keizergracht streets, 12am

There will also be a demonstration held outside the Eskom offices in Cape town, starting at 11am

Copac and the South African Food Sovereignty Coalition will be forming a human chain outside the Sasol offices in Sandton, 10am.

If you’re planning to attend any of these protests, please remember to bring plenty of water with you, as it can be difficult to stay properly hydrated outdoors and in large crowds. And finally, if you are attending the protests (or already have, depending on when you read this) leave us a comment below, or email any pictures you’d like to share to editor@lighthouse-eco.co.za

On The Web This Week, 5 September

On The Web This Week, 5 September

In this week’s reading list, breaking records while raising funds for conservation, plastic enters the fossil record, and the mysterious disappearance of Great White Sharks:

Picture Credit: Pixabay

First up, thesouthafrican.com reports on the unexplained disappearance of Great White Sharks from Cape Town’s False Bay. After just 50 sightings in 2018, not a single Great White has been spotted so far in 2019. There were an average of 205 sightings per year from 2010 – 2016.

Picture Credit: Chris Burville

In other ocean conservation news, the South Coast Herald reports on South African freediver Beth Neale, breaking her own freediving record while raising funds for conservation in Bermuda.

Picture credit: wechoosenature.org

Also from the South Coast Herald, the Pennington Conservancy has embarked on a project to turn plastic waste into building bricks that will go into refurbishing the recycling depot in Pennington.

New recycling label on packaging
New Recycling Label

Business Insider explains the new Recycling labels currently rolling out at Clicks, Food Lovers Market, Pick n Pay, Spar, Shoprite and Woolworths.

Photo credit: UIG/Getty

The Guardian reports that plastic pollution has now entered the fossil record, being found in offshore sediment layers, with contamination increasing exponentially since 1945. Most of the plastic particles were fibres from synthetic fabrics used in clothes, indicating that plastics are flowing freely into the ocean through waste water.

And finally, if you have any plastic bottles in your home, and you’d rather not add to your local landfill, why not reuse them? Try one of these craft ideas for a fun way to use what would otherwise just be unwanted rubbish:

Did you try one of these ideas? Let us know in the comments below. If you missed last week’s news, catch up here. Thanks for joining us, and come back soon for more!