Pregnancy

Plasticenta: microplastics in the placenta, a new challenge for our children to fight

An Italian study has demonstrated the presence of microplastics in human placenta, and opens up the need to investigate all the consequences that this presence can trigger on the short and long-term health of our children.

The work of two Italian research groups led by Professors Elisabetta Georgini and Oliana Carnevali was recently published on the biorXiv platform in December 2020 and in the scientific journal Environment International in January 2021.

This study has led to very important but at the same time extremely worrying results: the presence of microplastics and pigmented microparticles in human placenta samples has in fact been demonstrated.

The study was conducted with the collaboration of the Fatebenefratelli hospital in Rome, under the guidance of Dr. Antonio Ragusa, and provides a new point of view on the impact of pollution on our lives.

What are Microplastics?

Microplastics are particles ranging in size from 5 mm to 330 µm which are left over from the degradation of plastic objects abandoned in the environment. Microplastics can move from the environment to living organisms and have, in fact, been found in fish and mammals.

Microplastics can be divided into two types according to the source of pollution ( JRC110629, 2018 ):

  • Primary microplastics : fragments of plastics that are already released into the environment with this small size. These are, for example, fragments derived from the washing of synthetic garments (35% of primary microplastics), from the abrasion of tires while driving (28%) and from fragments that are added to cosmetic products (2%). Primary microplastics account for 15-31% of the microplastics in the ocean.
  • Secondary microplastics : fragments deriving from the progressive disintegration of larger plastic materials. Secondary microplastics account for about 68-81% of the microplastics in the ocean.

Microplastics have been found not only in the seas and oceans (including the Arctic and Antarctic seas) but also in freshwater samples, food and beverages .

The photo of the glass with the plastic inside certainly disgusts you, but if that single piece of plastic were fragmented into tiny pieces that are not visible to the naked eye, no one would mind drinking that glass of water. And that’s what we’re probably doing on a daily basis.

The World Health Organization has suggested in recent years to investigate the potential effects that microplastics can have on human health ( Microplastics in drinking water – WHO, 2019 ).

Microplastics in the human placenta

The Italian study analyzed six human placentas prospectively collected from consenting women with physiological pregnancies. The placentas were analyzed by Raman microspectroscopy to evaluate the presence of microparticles. The detected microparticles were finally characterized in terms of morphology and chemical composition.

In 4 out of 6 placentas, 12 microparticles were found , ranging in size from 5 to 10 μm: 5 in the fetal side, 4 in the maternal side and 3 in the chorioamniotic membranes.

All the analyzed microparticles were pigmented: three of them were identified as colored polypropylene, while for the other nine it was possible to identify only the pigments, all of which are used for coatings, paints and artificial dyes.

The study therefore   demonstrates for the first time the presence of microparticles and microplastics in the human placenta. This discovery sheds new light on the impact of plastics on human health. Microparticles and microplastics in the placenta, together with the endocrine disruptors they carry, could have long-term effects on human health.

The consequences of the discovery of microplastics in the human placenta

This study sheds new light on the level of human exposure to microplastics and microparticles in general. The placenta plays a crucial role in supporting the development of the fetus and acts as an interface between the latter and the external environment. Therefore the presence of exogenous and potentially harmful plastic particles is certainly a cause for great concern.

The 12 particles found in the placenta have well-defined characteristics. Three were identified as colored polypropylene, a common type of plastic found in things like packaging, bags, carpets and car interiors, as well as countless other products. The plastic type could not be identified for the other nine particles, but the pigment on them was recognized as pigments used in “artificial coatings, paints and dyes”.

The researchers remind us how huge the plastics industry is creating over 320 million tons a year, 40% of which is used in packaging that will be disposed of after the package is delivered. Unfortunately, the idea of ​​plastic as a renewable resource through recycling remains largely a myth: in Canada, according to the Deloitte study commissioned by Environment and Climate Change,  it is estimated that only 9% of plastic is actually recycled.

When plastic ends up in the environment, either as waste or as a result of improper disposal, it can degrade into microplastics, which are so small that they are almost impossible to recover once they enter the sea.

The fact that they have entered the environment in such a widespread manner has now also made their entry into the human body inevitable.

The researchers hypothesized that the microplastics reached the placenta via the mother’s respiratory system or gastrointestinal tract.

It is not yet clear what impact microplastics can or have on human health, the aim of the study was simply to confirm the presence of microplastics, not to pinpoint their effect.

According to the researchers, microplastics can alter several cellular regulatory pathways in the placenta, such as immune mechanisms during pregnancy, growth factor signaling during and after implantation, the functions of atypical chemokine receptors that regulate maternal-fetal communication. . All of these effects can lead to adverse pregnancy outcomes, including preeclampsia and fetal growth restriction.

Obviously, further in-depth studies are needed to understand whether the presence of microplastics in the human placenta can trigger immune responses or lead to the release of toxic contaminants that are harmful to pregnancy.

Antonio Ragusa, director of obstetrics and gynecology at the San Giovanni Calibita Fatebenefratelli hospital in Rome, and who led the study told The Guardian that

It’s like having a cyborg child: no longer composed only of human cells, but a mixture of biological and inorganic entities.

It should be emphasized that no microplastic residues were found in two placentas. According to the researchers this could be the result of a different physiology, diet or lifestyle of women.

At the same time, another study is worrying,  research by the Institute of Environmental and Occupational Sciences at Rutgers University, published in October. Scientists have shown that polystyrene plastic nanoparticles inhaled by pregnant female mice are found in the placenta, fetal liver, lungs, heart, kidneys and brain.

How much plastic do we ingest?

According to a 2019 study by WWF International, people could be ingesting the equivalent of a plastic credit card a week, mainly through drinking water, but also through foods such as shellfish.

To help us visually understand how much plastic is involved in a month or a year or in a lifetime, Reuters magazine used the results of the study to estimate that:

  • In one month, we ingest the weight of a 4×2 plastic Lego brick
  • In one year the amount of plastic contained in a firefighter’s helmet.
  • In a decade, we could eat 2.5 kg of plastic.
  • About 20 kg of microplastic over a lifetime.

Maybe it’s time to change course as long as it’s not too late.

Kathryn Barlow is an OB/GYN doctor, which is the medical specialty that deals with the care of women's reproductive health, including pregnancy and childbirth.

Obstetricians provide care to women during pregnancy, labor, and delivery, while gynecologists focus on the health of the female reproductive system, including the ovaries, uterus, vagina, and breasts. OB/GYN doctors are trained to provide medical and surgical care for a wide range of conditions related to women's reproductive health.

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