Bengaluru: Microplastics have been found for the first time in the human placenta, which provides oxygen and nutrients to the foetus, according to researchers in Italy. The particles were found in both the maternal and foetal portions after normal pregnancies and births.
Microplastics are pieces of plastic that are smaller than 5mm in size and enter natural ecosystems through various sources like synthetic clothing fibres, paints and further breakdown of larger plastics. They are known to disrupt and degrade environments as they are not biodegradable.
The researchers studied the placentas of six women and analysed them with Raman microspectroscopy to look for microplastics. The technique is used to analyse and identify different kinds of molecules in substances. Only about 4 per cent of each placenta was analysed.
They found a total of 12 fragments of microplastics, which were 5 to 10 micrometers in size, in four of the women. Of these, more particles were found on the foetal side of the placenta, but they were detected in both maternal and foetal side as well as in the membrane in which the foetus develops.
All particles were pigmented and were red, blue, dark blue, violet, pink or orange in color.
Three were identified as polypropylene, the second widely produced plastic after polyethylene, which is used for making solid plastic products around us.
For the other nine particles, the researchers were not able to identify the plastic but could identify the pigments, which are used in paints, adhesives, plasters, polymers, cosmetics, personal care products and in dyeing cotton or polyester textiles.
The findings were published in the journal Environment International.
Microplastics have been found in the human body before, in the gut, where they were likely transported through food.
Last year, it was also discovered that bottle-fed babies may be consuming millions of microplastic particles in just a single day.
However, the presence of microplastics in the placenta has caused alarm.
“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,” he added.
While the health effects of microplastics in the human body are not fully understood yet, they are known to cause endocrine (glands that make hormones) disruption that could have long-term effects on development and health. The authors state that they could have restrictions on normal foetal growth.
The researchers were also unable to explain if the microplastics entered the bloodstream through the respiratory system or the gastrointestinal system.
Growth of microplastics
Since 1907, when the first synthetic plastic called Bakelite was produced, plastics have been growing in production.
The production saw a surge in the 1950s and has steadily increased since then. It is estimated that in the last 65 years, the production of plastics increased by 200 times to 270 million tonnes in 2010 and 381 million tonnes in 2015, roughly weighing as much as two-thirds of the human population.
Microplastics are transported by wind and water, as well as other processes both natural and human and are washed into the ocean in excessively large quantities, settling at the sea floor and also drifting in layers of water, endangering marine life.
Plastic pollution is widespread, with microplastics having been found in all parts of the world and in all kinds of ecosystems. They have been detected on top of Mount Everest, in the deepest parts of oceans, embedded in Arctic ice, in animals, and even in plants, where they travel from the roots and end up in fruits or vegetables that humans and animals consume.
They are thought to have cascading, toxic effects on all ecosystems.
In the paper, the researchers concluded that the possible consequences of harmful microplastics during pregnancy and in the placenta could have trans-generational effects on metabolism and reproduction.
“Further studies need to be performed to assess if the presence of microplastics in human placenta may trigger immune responses or may lead to the release of toxic contaminants, resulting harmful for pregnancy.”