Microplastic Pollution Has Even Made It To the Placenta of Unborn Babies

“It is like having a cyborg baby: no longer composed only of human cells, but a mixture of biological and inorganic entities.”

24 December 2020, 6:30am

This year won’t stop throwing horrifying facts at us. But I guess a lot of it is our own doing.

A new research has found microplastic particles in the placenta of unborn babies for the first time, which has been labelled “a matter of great concern” by the researchers. 

Studies have already shown that we ingest about 330 tiny pieces of plastic, the size of a sesame seed or smaller, every day. But the extent to which these particles have managed to sneak into our systems and the effects of it were relatively unknown. Scientists fear they could carry chemicals that could cause long-term damage or upset the foetus’s developing immune system.

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The new research has found microplastic particles in the placentas from four healthy women who had both normal pregnancies and births. These particles are likely to have been ingested or breathed in by the mothers. They were detected on both the foetal and the maternal sides of the placenta as well as in the membrane within which the foetus develops.

While a dozen plastic particles were found in each, only about four per cent of the placenta was examined, which means the actual number might be higher. All the particles had traces of pigments and red, blue, orange, or pink dyes, which may have originally come from packaging, paints or cosmetics and personal care products. 

Owing to their extremely small size of ten microns (0.01 millimeters), they can be carried in the bloodstream and might have even entered the babies’ bodies, but the researchers were unable to ascertain that. 

“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 leader of the study. “The mothers were shocked.”

The research, called “Plasticenta: First evidence of microplastics in human placenta”, was published in the journal Environment International. The researchers said, “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.”

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Microplastics might potentially hinder foetal growth and cause preeclampsia (a pregnancy complication characterised by high blood pressure and signs of damage to another organ system, most often the liver and kidneys), the study said. The particles were not found in placentas from two other women in the study that was conducted at the San Giovanni Calibita Fatebenefratelli Hospital in Rome, which may be the result of different physiology, diet or lifestyle.

To prevent plastic contamination of the placenta, the researchers ensured plastic-free deliveries. Obstetricians and midwives used cotton gloves to assist women in labour and only cotton towels were used in the process. The umbilical cord was also cut with metal clippers, avoiding contact with plastic material.

Andrew Shennan, professor of obstetrics at King’s College London, expressed optimism at the normal births but added that “it is obviously preferable not to have foreign bodies while the baby is developing”.

Elizabeth Salter Green, at the chemicals charity Chem Trust, said to The Guardian that “Babies are being born pre-polluted”. She said that even though the study was small, it still raises a worrying concern.

In revealing some frightening ways in which microplastics can reach the placenta and further invade human bodies, the study adds to an existing body of research that has already tried to sound the alarm on microplastic pollution. 

In October, scientists revealed that babies around the world, 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 pollution caused by automobile traffic and the burning of fossil fuels.

It cannot be overstated how deeply microplastics have penetrated our environment and now, even our own bodies. But it’s important to note that while we’re still in the dark about their concrete effects on the human body, we already know that for other beings such as marine life, they can have disastrous effects, including disruption of reproductive systems, stunted growth, diminished appetite, tissue inflammation and liver damage, and altered feeding behaviour.

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Tagged:

italy, research, babies, placenta, unborn babies, microplastics, plastic pollution

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