‘Matter of great concern’: Scientists find microplastics in human placenta for 1st time

For the first time, scientists have found microplastics in the human placenta, leading experts to fear that the chemicals could interfere with fetal development, according to a recent study.

The Italian study, published in early December, said microplastics were found in four out of six women’s placentas who consented to donate the organ after giving birth.

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Only a small portion of the placenta was sampled, suggesting the amount of microplastic was much higher, the authors of the study said.

Tiny fragments of plastic are referred to as microplastics. The particles are usually five millimetres or less in diameter and have been detected in bottled water, drinking water, fish and sea salt in various studies.

The findings of the recent study show that once microplastics are in the human body, they can also reach placenta tissues “at all levels,” the authors said.

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The placenta plays a major role in the development of the fetus, supplying oxygen and nutrition, as well as removing waste products.

Microplastics in a placenta may lead to dangerous pregnancy outcomes, including preeclampsia and fetal growth restriction, the authors warned.

“Due to the crucial role of (the) placenta in supporting the fetus development …. the presence of exogenous and potentially harmful (plastic) particles is a matter of great concern,” the authors stated.

Microphotographs of the microplastics found in human placenta.
Microphotographs of the microplastics found in human placenta.

‘It’s like having a cyborg baby’

Plastic production has surged in the last 50 years with the widespread use of inexpensive disposable products. As plastic is not biodegradable and only breaks down into smaller pieces, it ultimately ends up everywhere, cluttering beaches and killing marine wildlife, as well as in the food chain.

There have been reports of microplastics found in human intestines and the gastrointestinal tract of marine animals.

Read more: Are microplastics ending up in human stool? Experts say study is too small to prove anything

The authors of the Italian study said they’re not sure how the microplastics reached the bloodstream of the women — as it could have been through the respiratory system or the gastrointestinal system.

“Further studies need to be performed to assess if the presence of (microplastics) in the human placenta may trigger immune responses or may lead to the release of toxic contaminants, resulting harmful for pregnancy,” the authors stated.

Dr. Antonio Ragusa, director of the Uoc Obstetrics and Gynaecology Fatebenefratelli hospital in Rome, where the research was conducted, told the Daily Mail the findings were very worrying.

“When I saw for the first time microplastics in the placenta, I was astonished,” he said.

“If you find something in the placenta, this means you find something in the baby… It’s like having a cyborg baby: it is no longer made up of just human cells but a mixture of biological and inorganic materials.”

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A 2019 WWF International study said there is so much plastic in our environment that humans could be ingesting the equivalent of a credit card of plastic every week.

In Canada, microplastics have been found in the Arctic and in Ontario’s Great Lakes.

A federal report found that in 2016, 29,000 tonnes of plastic garbage, the equivalent of about 2.3 billion single-use plastic water bottles, ended up as litter in Canada — on beaches, in parks, in lakes and in the air.

The Trudeau government has proposed a ban on single-use plastics in Canada by the end of 2021. The ban would eliminate plastic checkout bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, foodware and cutlery.

However, in a 2019 study, the World Health Organization (WHO) said there is not enough evidence to say ingesting these particles is harmful to human health.

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The authors of the report said the minuscule plastics are “ubiquitous in the environment” and have been found in drinking water, including both tap and bottled, most likely as the result of treatment and distribution systems.

The WHO said the levels of microplastics in drinking water don’t appear to be risky, but that research has been spotty and more is needed into their effects on the environment and health.

— With wiles from Reuters and the Canadian Press

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