Parenting in the Plasticene

Can we ever protect our kids from plastic?

A FEW MONTHS AGO, I got a midday text from my son’s daycare. He had fallen off a rocking horse and bitten his tongue. It was a pretty run-of-the-mill injury for an 18-month-old, but they wanted to give me a heads-up ahead of pick-up that day; apparently there had been a fair amount of blood. When I went to gather him after work, he greeted me with a big grin, and a slightly bloody teether in his mouth. I was a little alarmed that his tongue was still bleeding. But I was more concerned about the teether. His teachers had lovingly given it to him to soothe his wound. But it was plastic, and the moment I saw it, I wanted to pluck it out of his mouth.

In many ways, this is a silly story. My son comes into contact with plastics every day of his life, in daycare as well as in our home. A few extra minutes with a teether really wasn’t a big deal. But the moment encapsulates the kind of anxiety I often face as a mom. I worry about the chemicals in my kids’ shampoo, the contaminants in the water they drink, the exhaust fumes from cars and the particulate pollution from wildfires that their tiny lungs inhale. But it’s plastic that bothers me more than anything else. I constantly worry about all the plastic my two children come in contact with — from the Legos they dump across our floors, to the stuffed animals they cuddle, to the packaging on the foods they eat — and how I might reduce it.

The level to which plastic now infiltrates our lives and environments is unprecedented.

Of course, anxiety is a normal part of parenting. We worry endlessly over the costs of childcare, the nutritional benefits of foods, the best sleep habits, and of course choking hazards, tripping hazards — and tongue-biting hazards.

To me, though, the threat plastic poses is different. The level to which plastic now infiltrates our lives and environments is unprecedented. And the health threats associated with plastic are, too.

FULLY SYNTHETIC PLASTICS are a relatively recent innovation, dating back to 1907, when Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland created a polymer from coal tar and wood alcohol. Soon after, thanks to the combined efforts of the fossil fuel and chemical industries, we had polyethylene. From there, plastic production skyrocketed, first due to the demands of the two World Wars — think plastic insulation for radar cable, nylon for parachutes, and plexiglass for airplanes — and then due to consumer interest in everything from plastic combs to fishing lines, suitcases, dolls, hoes, and, of course, food packaging.

It’s hard to overstate the revolutionary impact of this material. While many of the plastic goods hitting shelves were, perhaps, nonessential, plastic allowed for lower- and middle-income Americans to consume in a way they couldn’t previously afford. Plastics also brought revolutionary gains to healthcare, lowering costs for products like syringes and IV bags, reducing the spread of disease, and allowing for innovations in a range of medical devices.

The rub, of course, is that we now know that plastics are also associated with a range of health risks, risks that originate from production, use, and disposal. Those include the risks associated with extracting and refining the fossil fuels that 99 percent of plastic is made of. They also include exposure to the 16,000 chemicals that are used in plastic production to give it color, flexibility, water resistance, and any other number of characteristics. Consumers encounter these chemicals — including bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, and perfluorinated compounds — in the products they use every day, as well through soil, air, and water that are contaminated with leached chemicals and microplastic particles.

While basically everyone on Earth now has BPA and phthalates in their bodies, the research shows that the levels in children are the highest.

As the Center for International Environmental Law put it in a 2019 report, “Together, the lifecycle impacts of plastic paint an unequivocally toxic picture: Plastic threatens human health on a global scale.”

This burden is not borne equally. Fossil fuel extraction, fossil fuel refining, and plastic production are all concentrated in lower-income communities and communities of color. So is waste disposal, particularly in lower-income communities in the Global South, where countries like the United States ship much of our trash.

Even when it comes to consumption, some groups are more vulnerable than others: namely infants and young children. Infants drink from plastic bottles. They put plastic stuffed animals (yes, polyester is a plastic) and clothes and rattles in their mouths. They crawl on microplastic-polluted floors. As Philip Landrigan, a well-known US epidemiologist and pediatrician, points out, they also eat and drink more per pound than adults, increasing their exposure to plastic food and water packaging, and to the chemicals they contain. So, while basically everyone on Earth now has BPA and phthalates in their bodies, the research shows that the levels in children are the highest. It also suggests that infants have significantly higher levels of microplastics. (Children in lower-income countries may be especially vulnerable, but are less represented in existing research.)

And it’s not just that their exposure is greater. “The big thing about children, and that includes infants in the womb, is the fact that they are very rapidly growing and developing,” says Landrigan, who was lead author of a 2023 report on the lifetime health impacts of plastics. “Human development is an extraordinarily complex process…. Because it is so complex, it is easily disrupted. And if the wrong chemical gets into a baby at the wrong time, even a very small dose can have a devastating consequence.”


Research bears this out: Early exposure to chemicals like bisphenols (including BPA) and phthalates has been found to increase the risk of impaired brain development, infertility, preterm birth, and childhood cancer.

Despite these very real risks, very few plastics chemicals are regulated. Nor are you likely to find warnings about plastic at your OB-GYN or pediatrician’s office.

“Environmental exposures are often invisible and silent, and health effects may take years or decades to appear,” Kam Sripada, a Norwegian neuroscientist, wrote in an email. “Medical curricula have unfortunately downplayed children’s environmental health the last several decades,” says Sirpada, who is part of Little Things Matter, a team of scientists, researchers, and advocates working to spread awareness about the impacts of toxic chemicals on children’s health

The result is mounting exposure to plastic products with little oversight or guidance on how to address it. All of which leaves parents of young children in the uncomfortable position of wading through the plastic mess, trying to determine what we can eliminate, and what exposures we simply have to accept.

IT’S PRETTY EASY to pin down the source of my own plastic worry — I spend my days reading and writing about the many environmental perils facing our planet and how environmental harms are unequally distributed across racial, economic, and social groups. But you don’t have to be an environmental journalist to internalize the threat plastic poses, particularly to young children. A quick Google search turns up a long list of fear-inducing headlines. “Are we poisoning our children with plastic?” asks The Guardian. “Chemicals in plastics damage babies’ brains and must be banned immediately, expert group says” reads one from CNN. And from ScienceAlert: “Huge, Global Study of Plastic Toys Finds Over 100 Substances That May Harm Children.”

“Eco-anxiety is not pathology,” says Heidi Schreiber-Pan, a licensed therapist and founder of the Center for Nature Informed Therapy. “Eco-anxiety is the right response to an actual threat to our survival.”

“Eco-anxiety is the right response to an actual threat to our survival.”

And it can benefit us: “We never can, nor do we want, to … eliminate anxiety because it serves a role,” says Thomas Doherty, a psychologist who specializes in applying an environmental perspective to mental health. “We should, in fact, be able to be concerned about a threat — that’s very adaptive.” But, he adds, we should try to “preserve the healthy part of anxiety, and try to lessen the really debilitating or counterproductive parts, which is easier said than done.”

Jennifer Silverstein, a clinical social worker and infant-family mental health practitioner who centers climate justice in her work, has come face to face with this challenging balance. A parent herself, Silverstein recalls spending her child’s early years “really drowning” in how hard it was to create a clean environment for her little one. At one point during the Covid-19 pandemic, she found herself frozen in the grocery store for an hour, contemplating what to buy now that her preferred — and plastic free — bulk staples were no longer an option.


“That was the last straw,” she says of the experience, which led her to refocus her energy on collective rather than individual action on the issue. “The truth of it, as hard as it is to hear, is that there is microplastic in everything, and we can only protect our children from so much of it.”

Of course, there are reasonable precautions that can be taken to reduce exposures. Removing shoes inside, for example, to limit the microplastics carried with dust. Using glass baby bottles. Reducing plastic in clothing, toys, and food storage containers when possible.

But beyond that, what is an anxious parent to do? How do we channel our concern in a healthy manner, and keep ourselves from drowning in worry?

One option — something that all the mental health professionals, researchers, and eco-anxiety experts I spoke with mentioned in one way or another — is to turn anxiety into action. That may mean finding a stewardship activity. Silverstein likes to do trash pick-ups ahead of storms in order to reduce the litter that makes its way into our water. Or, as Sripada suggests, it might mean channeling your stress into “contacting your government and producers.”

Another way to mitigate eco-anxiety, if not to address the root cause, is to find community. Finding those who share your concern is validating. It makes you feel less alone. And it can lead to collective action.

EVEN IF IT is top of mind for me, tackling the plastic problem isn’t, understandably, the No. 1 priority for every parent. For many families, simply providing food and clothing and childcare for kids can be all consuming, particularly in a society that provides very little support for parents of young children. For others, dealing with more immediate threats to health and well-being may take precedence — the pollutants from fracking wells, or refineries, or petrochemical plants, for example. For the majority, it simply may not be on their radar.

As Landrigan puts it, “Life is hard.… Plastic probably is not the first thing most people wake up thinking about in the morning.”

That’s part of what makes collective action on the matter so important. As the world moves away from fossil fuels, the petrochemical industry is looking to fill revenue losses with more plastic production, which is already on track to double by 2040. Even for those with the time and energy to worry about this issue, anything we do to limit individual exposure is really just nipping at the edges of the greater problem, one that threatens the health of the planet, and of all people, eco-anxious or not.

Any true solution requires reducing plastic production, along with addressing chemical use in plastics manufacturing. This could be on the horizon: The international community is currently hashing out a global treaty on plastics, one the 175 United Nations member countries have committed to delivering by the end of this year. The substance and strength of that treaty, however, is yet to be determined.


My own action comes in the form of reporting and editing stories on our plastic pollution crisis and highlighting potential solutions. But as we wait for our collective efforts to move the needle on plastic production, I’ve come to accept that there is simply no way to eliminate my children’s plastic exposure. Even at home, they play with plastic toys, use plastic tooth brushes to clean their teeth, and drink water that likely contains microplastics every day. I’m also beginning to accept that this particular brand of eco-anxiety is an inevitable part of parenting these days; it may not go away, but that perhaps that’s all right. As Doherty told me, “When you’re feeling any kind of discomfort or distress, it is because you have a value, or something important, or something that you love.”

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.