Microwaving baby food containers releases BILLIONS of harmful plastic particles

LINCOLN, Neb. — Parents should think twice before microwaving plastic baby food containers. Researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln say that could release billions of tiny plastic particles into the food. Their study finds some containers released over two billion nanoplastics and four million microplastics per square centimeter when users exposed their containers to microwaves.

The health implications of consuming such micro and nanoplastics remain uncertain, but the study observed a significant impact on cultured embryonic kidney cells. After exposure to these plastic particles, around 75 percent of these cells died within two days. Given the potential risks, a 2022 report from the World Health Organization advised limiting exposure to these particles.

“It is really important to know how many micro- and nanoplastics we are taking in,” says Kazi Albab Hussain, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering, in a university release. “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.”

Kazi Albab Hussain (left) holds his son while removing a plastic container of water from a microwave
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)

In 2021, inspired by the birth of his child, Hussain and his colleagues initiated their study on baby food containers. They experimented with two types of plastics approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The plastics were microwaved, containing either deionized water or three percent acetic acid, which simulates the acidity of many food products. The results varied based on the type of container and the liquid inside, but infants and toddlers consuming microwaved products could be ingesting significant concentrations of plastics. Even storing food at room temperature or refrigeration could lead to the release of these particles.

“For my baby, I was unable to completely avoid the use of plastic,” says Hussain. “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.”

Researchers also delved into the direct effects of plastics on cells. Kidney cells exposed to high concentrations of the released particles showed high mortality rates, suggesting that these plastics could have significant toxic effects, especially as these plastics penetrated cells more easily.

A side-by-side comparison of embryonic kidney cells left untreated (left) versus those treated with micro- and nanoplastics (right) for 72 hours.
A side-by-side comparison of embryonic kidney cells left untreated (left) versus those treated with micro- and nanoplastics (right) for 72 hours. (credit: Environmental Science & Technology / American Chemical Society)

Hussain hopes that future products might feature labels such as “microplastics-free” or “nanoplastics-free” and calls for research into plastics that don’t release these particles.

“We need to find the polymers which release fewer (particles),” says Hussain. “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.

The study was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

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