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Nanotechnology Now – Press Release: Billions of nanoplastics released when microwaving baby food containers: Exposure to plastic particles kills up to 75% of cultured kidney cells

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Home > Press > Billions of nanoplastics released when microwaving baby food containers: Exposure to plastic particles kills up to 75% of cultured kidney cells

Kazi Albab Hussain (left) holds his son while removing a plastic container filled with water from the microwave.  Hussain and colleagues at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln have found that microwaving such containers can release billions of nanoscopic particles and millions of microscopic particles.  CREDITS Craig Chandler, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Kazi Albab Hussain (left) holds his son while removing a plastic container filled with water from the microwave. Hussain and colleagues at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln have found that microwaving such containers can release billions of nanoscopic particles and millions of microscopic particles. CREDITS Craig Chandler, University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Abstract:
The fastest way to heat food and drink may also rank as the quickest route for ingesting large amounts of very small plastic particles, says new research from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

Billions of nanoplastics released when microwaving baby food containers: Exposure to plastic particles kills up to 75% of cultured kidney cells

Lincoln, N.E. | Posted on July 21, 2023

Experiments have shown that microwave plastic baby food containers available on US store shelves can release large amounts of plastic particles — in some cases, more than 2 billion nanoplastics and 4 million microplastics for every square centimeter of the container.

Although the health effects of ingesting micro- and nanoplastics remain unclear, the Nebraska team further found that three-quarters of cultured embryonic kidney cells were dead after two days of being introduced to the same particles. A 2022 report from the World Health Organization recommends limiting exposure to such particles.

“It is very important to know how much micro and nanoplastic we are consuming,” said Kazi Albab Hussain, lead author of the study and doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. “When we eat certain foods, we are generally told or have an idea about the calorie content, sugar content, and other nutrients. I believe it is equally important for us to know the amount of plastic particles present in our food.

“Just as we understand the impact of calories and nutrients on our health, knowing the extent to which plastic particles are ingested is critical to understanding the potential harm they can cause. Many studies, including ours, show that the toxicity of micro- and nanoplastics is strongly related to exposure levels.”

The team begins its studies in 2021, the same year Hussain became a father. While previous research had investigated the release of plastic particles from baby bottles, the team realized that none of the studies had looked at the types of plastic containers and bags that Hussain himself purchased, and that millions of other parents did as well.

Hussain and his colleagues decided to experiment with two baby food containers made of polypropylene and a reusable bag made of polyethylene, both plastics approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. In one experiment, researchers filled a container with deionized water or 3% acetic acid — the latter meant to simulate relatively acidic dairy products, fruits, vegetables and other consumables — then heated it at full power for three minutes in a 1,000-watt microwave. After that, they analyzed the liquid for evidence of micro- and nanoplastics: microparticles at least 1/1,000th of a millimeter in diameter, nanoparticles even smaller.

The actual amount of each particle released by microwaves depends on many factors, including the plastic container and the liquid inside. But based on models that account for particulate release, body weight, and per capita consumption of various foods and beverages, the team estimated that infants who drank products with microwave water and toddlers who consumed microwaved milk products consumed the largest relative concentrations of plastic. Experiments designed to simulate the cooling and storage of food or drink at room temperature over a span of six months have also shown that they can cause the release of micro- and nanoplastics.

“For my baby, I can’t completely avoid using plastic,” said Hussain. “But I can avoid (scenarios) that lead to more release of micro and nanoplastics. People have a right to know too, and they should choose wisely.”

With the help of Svetlana Romanova of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, the team then cultured and exposed embryonic kidney cells to actual plastic particles released from the vessel – a first, as far as Hussain knew. Instead of introducing just the number of particles released by a single vessel, the researchers instead exposed cells to concentrations of particles that infants and toddlers might have accumulated over days or from multiple sources.

After two days, only 23% of kidney cells exposed to the highest concentrations managed to survive — a mortality rate much higher than observed in previous studies of micro- and nanoplastic toxicity. The team suspects that kidney cells may be more susceptible to the particles than other cell types examined in previous studies. But previous studies have also tended to examine the effects of larger polypropylene particles, some of which are potentially too large to penetrate cells. If so, the research led by Hussain could prove to be surprisingly calming: Despite the experimental conditions, Husker’s team found that polypropylene containers and polyethylene bags generally release about 1,000 times more nanoplastics than microplastics.

The question of cell infiltration is just one of many that needs answers, says Hussain, before determining the true risks of ingesting micro- and nanoplastics. But to the extent that they pose a health threat — and that plastic does end up making its way into baby food storage — parents will have a vested interest in seeing that the companies that manufacture plastic containers seek viable alternatives, he said.

“We need to find polymers that release less (particles),” said Hussain. “Perhaps, researchers will be able to develop plastics that don’t release any micro- or nanoplastics — or, if they do, the release is negligible.

“I hope that the day will come when these products feature a label that says ‘microplastic free’ or ‘nano plastic free.’”

The team reports its findings in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Hussain and Romanova co-authored the study with Yusong Li of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Mathias Schubert, Yongfeng Lu, Lucía Fernández-Ballester, Bing Wang, Xi Huang, Jesse Kuebler, Dong Zhang and Ilhami Okur. The researchers had support from the National Science Foundation and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.

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Contact:
Media Contact

Scott Schrage
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Expert Contact

Kazi Albab Hussain
University of Nebraska–Lincoln

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