Microplastics, which are tiny pieces of plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size, have now been found in human placentas. To find tiny plastic particles on both sides of the placenta (the baby's side and the mother's side), as well as in the placental membranes, is an alarming finding! Why is this occurring? And are they causing harm to the developing fetus?
First, it is important to realize that we are surrounded by plastic in products that we use, and also in our environment. Eventually all plastic degrades into tiny pieces called microplastics and nanoplastics. These tiny plastic pieces are found throughout the world, including in the oceans and rivers, indoor air, and the food we eat and water we drink, especially bottled water. The particles get into us, and while some is excreted in the feces, they also get into our organs.
The Italian researchers examined small portions of 6 human placentas (from normal pregnancies) and found a total of 12 plastic particles in 4 of the placentas. The researchers said that all the particles were "pigmented" (colored), with 3 being tiny polypropylene pieces, and the other 9 could only be identified as pigments (e.g. from man-made coatings, paints, adhesives, cosmetics, and personal care products).
The researchers did not know how the plastic particles entered the mother's blood stream and so got into the placenta - whether it was from the mother's respiratory system (breathed in) or the gastrointestinal system (from ingested foods). They thought that differences in foods eaten and lifestyles might result in why four placentas had plastic particles and two others not.
A big concern with microplastics in humans, especially developing fetuses, is that they can contain substances that can act as endocrine (hormone) disruptors and so could cause long-term effects on human health. Will they have an effect on the developing immune system? At this point we do not know. We have many questions and studies are needed.
What should one do to lower exposure to plastic particles? There are many things one can do. Especially important is to no longer drink bottled water or other beverages in plastic bottles, or store or cook food in plastic containers. List of tips on how to lower exposure to plastics and the harmful chemicals in them - Avoiding Harmful Chemicals
Excerpts from The Guardian - Microplastics revealed in the placentas of unborn babies
Microplastic particles have been revealed in the placentas of unborn babies for the first time, which the researchers said was “a matter of great concern”.
The health impact of microplastics in the body is as yet unknown. But the scientists said they could carry chemicals that could cause long-term damage or upset the foetus’s developing immune system. The particles are likely to have been consumed or breathed in by the mothers.
The particles were found in the placentas from four healthy women who had normal pregnancies and births. Microplastics were detected on both the foetal and maternal sides of the placenta and in the membrane within which the foetus develops.
A dozen plastic particles were found. Only about 4% of each placenta was analysed, however, suggesting the total number of microplastics was much higher. All the particles analysed were plastics that had been dyed blue, red, orange or pink and may have originally come from packaging, paints or cosmetics and personal care products.
The microplastics were mostly 10 microns in size (0.01mm), meaning they are small enough to be carried in the bloodstream. The particles may have entered the babies’ bodies, but the researchers were unable to assess this.
“It is like having a cyborg baby: no longer composed only of human cells, but a mixture of biological and inorganic entities,” said Antonio Ragusa, director of obstetrics and gynaecology at the San Giovanni Calibita Fatebenefratelli hospital in Rome, and who led the study. “The mothers were shocked.”
In the study, published in the journal Environment International, the researchers concluded: “Due to the crucial role of placenta in supporting the foetus’s development and in acting as an interface with the external environment, the presence of potentially harmful plastic particles is a matter of great concern. Further studies need to be performed to assess if the presence of microplastics may trigger immune responses or may lead to the release of toxic contaminants, resulting in harm.”
The potential effects of microplastics on foetuses include reduced foetal growth, they said. The particles were not found in placentas from two other women in the study, which may be the result of different physiology, diet or lifestyle, the scientists said.
Their effect in the body is unknown but scientists say there is an urgent need to assess the issue, particularly for infants. In October, scientists revealed that babies fed formula milk in plastic bottles are swallowing millions of particles a day. In 2019, researchers reported the discovery of air pollution particles on the foetal side of placentas, indicating that unborn babies are also exposed to the dirty air produced by motor traffic and fossil fuel burning.
A separate recent study showed that nanoparticles of plastic inhaled by pregnant laboratory rats were detected in the liver, lungs, heart, kidney, and brain of their foetuses.
The actual study by A. Ragusa et al - Plasticenta: First evidence of microplastics in human placenta