‘Great concern’ as study finds microplastics in human placentas

By Elizabeth Claire Alberts / Mongabay

  • A new study has found microplastics present inside human placentas, which could potentially affect fetal health and development.
  • The microplastics probably entered the women’s bodies through ingestion and inhalation, and then translocated to the placentas, the study suggests.
  • While further research needs to be done on the subject, it is believed that these microplastics could disrupt immunity mechanisms in babies.

Plastic is everywhere — literally everywhere. A growing body of research shows that plastic is not only filling the world’s oceans and wilderness regions, it’s also invading our bodies through the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we consume. And now, a new study has shown that microplastics — tiny plastic particles smaller than 5 millimeters but bigger than 1 micron — are even present inside human placentas, posing a potential risk to fetal health and development.

Published this month in Environmental International, the study examined six human placentas from women who experienced healthy pregnancies and births. During delivery, the obstetricians and midwives followed a “plastic-free protocol,” swapping plastic gloves for cotton ones, and not using any plastic equipment or supplies to avoid cross-contamination.

The researchers found a total of 12 microplastic fragments in four of the six placentas. Three of these pieces were recognized as polypropylene, a plastic commonly used in food containers and packaging. While the other pieces were harder to identify, they appeared to be plastic bits from “man-made coatings, paints, adhesives, plasters, finger paints, polymers and cosmetics and personal care products,” according to the study.

The effects of microplastics in the human body on health are still largely unknown, but the researchers said it was “a matter of great concern” due to the critical role the placenta plays in fetal development.

Lead author Antonio Ragusa, director of obstetrics and gynecology at the San Giovanni Calibita Fatebenefratelli hospital in Rome, said it’s likely that microplastics would be present in the babies themselves, although further research would need to confirm this.

“I cannot support it with scientific evidence, since ours is the first study in the world on this topic, [but] I think that if we could look for them we will also find microplastics in the organs of the newborn, because the placenta is a temporary fetal organ, and not a maternal organ,” Ragusa told Mongabay in an emailed statement. “Of course this is just a guess.”

While all of the babies were healthy at birth, Ragusa said that the microplastics in the placenta had the potential to “alter several cellular regulating pathways … such as immunity mechanisms.”

“The presence of MPs [microplastics] in the placenta tissue requires the reconsideration of the immunological mechanism of self-tolerance, a mechanism that may be perturbed by the presence of MPs,” Ragusa said. “In fact, it is reported that, once present in the human body, MPs may accumulate and exert localized toxicity by inducing and/or enhancing immune responses and, hence, potentially reducing the defense mechanisms against pathogens and altering the utilization of energy stores.”

The researchers say it’s likely that the microplastics entered the mothers’ bodies through food ingestion or through respiration, and then translocated into the placentas.

Steve Allen, a microplastics researcher from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, who was not involved in the study, said he wasn’t surprised by the findings: “I’d say with complete confidence that using the right tools, we will find it in every part of the human body.”

A similar study has shown that pregnant rats forced to inhale nanoplastics ended up having particles present in their placentas, as well as the fetal liver, lungs, heart, kidney and brain.

“Considering it can move through rats like that, I wouldn’t be surprised if it can do exactly the same thing to humans,” said Deonie Allen, also a microplastics researcher at the University of Strathclyde.

Ragusa says he and his colleagues will be doing further research on microplastics with regard to maternal and infant health.

“We now have to understand if microplastics are present in the newborn at birth and we will do it by taking the umbilical cord blood at birth,” he said. “Another important step will be to understand if microplastics are present in breast milk.”

Citations:

  • Fournier, S. B., D’Errico, J. N., Adler, D. S., Kollontzi, S., Goedken, M. J., Fabris, L., Yurkow, E. J. & Stapleton, P. A. (2020). Nanopolystyrene translocation and fetal deposition after acute lung exposure during late-stage pregnancy. Particle and Fibre Toxicology, 17(55). doi:10.21203/rs.3.rs-39676/v1
  • Ragusa, A., Svelato, A., Santacroce, C., Catalano, P., Notarstefano, V., Carnevali, O., Papa, F., Rongioletti, M. C. A., Baiocco, F., Draghi, S., D’Amore, E., Rinaldo, D., Matta, M., Giorgini, E. (2021). Plasticenta: First evidence of microplastics in human placenta. Environment International, 146, 106274. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2020.106274

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.


This article was originally published in Mongabay, please find the original article here. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Featured image: Microplastics found in a freshwater stream in Florida in 2017. Image by Florida Sea Grant / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

7 thoughts on “‘Great concern’ as study finds microplastics in human placentas”

  1. It is shocking to me that this story isn’t getting front page news around the world. Not surprising, but still shocking.

  2. No surprise at all. Increasing sterility in some species of fish also coincides with plastic ingestion. And the sperm count of men in the develooed world has declined by half since the mid-1970s.

    Autopsies done on U.S. troops killed during the Vietnam war found that most of them had coronary artery disease — average age, 19.

    We also have huge dead zones in the oceans, around the mouths of major rivers, where most life forms other than jellyfish have disappeared.

    More than 80,000 manmade substances were introduced to Nature during the 20th century — most of them without any testing for health effects.

    Now we have 5G technology, which we’re assured is “safe,” though it hasn’t been tested for effects on human health. The microwave pulses used are only 3 times the length of x-ray waves. And for the technology to work, we’ll “need” a network of transmitters, 200 feet apart. Alarmists like me expect an epidemic of brain cancer, 10 or 20 years later.

    The examples go on. When you go to war with Nature, expect casualties — in steadily increasing numbers.

  3. Harms to humans from they pollution that THEY create are the least of my concerns. I would prefer that no one, including humans, suffers from this stuff, but humans are the cause of the problem, not the victim.

  4. While I have no doubt whatsoever that toxic plastics are in the air, water and food, I seriously question this article’s finding (and the study) that pieces of plastic 5 millimeters in size were found in placentas … or could be found in any human organ.

    Five millimeters is one-half a centimeter.

    I know what a one centimeter tumor looks like as well as what a two centimeter tumor looks like.

    I also know what 8 millimeter film looks like, just three millimeters larger than what the study asks us to accept was found in human placentas.

    That is scarcely credible unless they were, perhaps, filaments, and even then I find that to be in-credible and be subject to proof.

    Methodologically, the study should have attempted to determine whether the same or similar size plastics were present in both the baby AND the mother as well as the babies and mothers where NO plastics were found in the placentas.

    While I haven’t read the study and do not intend to, this sort of non-falsifiable “research” seems of the kind that would wind up on Retraction Watch.

    So much JUNK SCIENCE these days is purveyed via the mainstream corporate media and on the internet that people concerned with the environment and human health need to critically analyze studies to make certain they are VALID and contain no methodological or statistical flaws before publishing it to the world.

    People are SCARED ENOUGH.

    Having said that, I would not be surprised if such findings or something similar at much SMALLER than 5 millimeters could be found in placentas or humans — IN THE TRILLIONS — but this study as reported just doesn’t cut the mustard.

    And, of course, it doesn’t seem to have been REPLICATED.

    NOTE: “Environmental International” is ***NOT*** repeat ***NOT*** a peer-reviewed journal. It is an OPEN ACCESS journal which means the authors PAY A FEE to have an article published. >>>>> NOT CREDIBLE.

  5. @Thomas Prentice, Ph.D.
    So this is your reaction to this article, to nitpick about details? Plastic is polluting and destroying the planet and everything that lives here. Who cares about the size of plastic in a placenta? That’s not at all the issue; the issue is that plastic is very harmful unnatural crap that’s contributing to the destruction of life on Earth. Your comment is nothing but a meaningless distraction.

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