Microplastic pollution a big issue for ECEC
The Sector > Research > Microplastic pollution is a big issue for early childhood services, Griffith study finds

Microplastic pollution is a big issue for early childhood services, Griffith study finds

by Freya Lucas

June 05, 2023

While the air that many Australian children breathe is loaded with microplastic pollution, the air in early childhood education and care (ECEC) services is the worst of all, a new study from Griffith University has found. 


Researchers have taken a forensic look at air quality in indoor environments where Australians spend the majority of their lives, collecting air samples from seven Gold Coast sites, including a childcare centre (sic.), an office, a school, two homes, a restaurant and the interior of a car.


The number of microplastic particles was then compared with outdoor samples where the average was less than 0.2 particles per cubic metre of air.


In all cases, plastic pollution in indoor samples was much higher but the stand-out was the childcare centre where it was 11 times higher, at 2.2 particles per cubic metre. The office ranked second at 1.2 particles, the school at 1.0, and the two homes at 0.9 and 0.5.


The restaurant was 0.7 and the car was roughly on par with outdoor air, at 0.2.


The differing results, study co-author and environmental toxicology expert Frederic Leusch said can largely be explained by the presence of high plastic-content items, combined with activity levels.


Some of the biggest sources of microplastic pollution are soft textiles, such as rugs, carpets, curtains and clothes, with these items shedding small particulate matter which can hang in the air. Plastic vessels – such as storage bins, cups, plates, bowls and containers, and plastic packaging, such as bread bags, food packaging, packages of wipes and nappies also shed these particles. 


Vessels and packaging are most commonly made from polyethylene terephthalate – or PET – which was the prominent polymer identified at most of the sites that were studied.


When you combine the amount of plastic commonly found in an ECEC service with children “running around and stirring things up” the reason for the high levels in ECEC settings becomes clear. 


“With the childcare centre there’s more carpet, there’s plastic toys, there’s more movement in the room as well with kids running, so it’s not phenomenally surprising that it would be high in such an environment,” Professor Leusch explained.


For services which are concerned with the exposure risks, researchers recommend: 


  • Opening up windows wherever possible to get fresh air in from the outside
  • Vacuuming frequently 
  • Limit the use of clothes dryers and air conditioners


Lead researcher Kushani Perera said that more work is needed to determine what health consequences, if any, arise from the inhalation of microplastic particles, estimated to be a few thousand per person per year.


“That’s the next step. Now that we have understood the different exposure levels, I will culture human lung cells and expose them to the concentrations of microplastics we observed in this study.”


The peer reviewed paper has been published in Science of The Total Environment and may be accessed here.

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