Scientists have described the discovery of microplastics in the placentas of new mothers as “a matter of great concern”, after new research identified a range of synthetic substances from relatively small tissue samples.
The women who took part in the study in Italy had no complications with the births of their children, and the effect of the tiny plastic particles is unknown, however, experts have suggested plastics could provide a means for harmful chemicals to damage a developing foetus’s immune system.
The researchers from Rome’s Fatebenefratelli Hospital in Rome, which specialises in pediatrics, and the Politecnica delle Marche University said: “With the presence of plastic in the body, the immune system that self-recognises is disturbed, even what is not organic.
“It’s like having a cyborg baby, no longer composed only of human cells, but a mixture of a biological entity and inorganic entities.”
Lead author of the study Antonio Ragusa, head of Fatebenefratelli's obstetrics and gynaecology department, said “the mothers were shocked”.
The research team found 12 microplastic fragments in four placentas out of six donated by women after the birth of their children.
Only 3 per cent of the tissue from each placenta was sampled, suggesting the total number of microplastic pieces could be much higher.
Dr Ragusa, said: “When I saw for the first time microplastics in the placenta, I was astonished.”
The research paper said all of the plastics were pigmented. “Three were identified as stained polypropylene a thermoplastic polymer, while for the other nine it was possible to identify only the pigments, which were all used for man-made coatings, paints, adhesives, plasters, finger paints, polymers and cosmetics and personal care products.”
The researchers noted that over the last century, the global production of plastics has reached 320 million tons per year, and over 40 per cent is used as single-use packaging, and therefore hugely contributing to the levels of plastic waste.
Inside human cells, microplastics are treated as foreign bodies by the host organism and this can trigger localised immune responses.
Microplastics can also act as carriers for other chemicals, including environmental pollutants and plastic additives, which may be released and are known for their harmful effects, the authors said.
In order to ensure the placentas the scientists were studying were not contaminated with plastics after they had left the body, a plastic-free environment was maintained during the entire experiment.
Obstetricians and midwives used cotton gloves to assist women in labour. In the delivery room, only cotton towels were used to cover patients’ beds, and the umbilical cord was clamped and cut with metal clippers, to avoid contact with plastic material. Pathologists also wore cotton gloves and used metal scalpels.
The authors said: “Due to the crucial role of placenta in supporting the foetus development and in acting as an interface between the latter and the external environment, the presence of exogenous and potentially harmful (plastic) particles is a matter of great concern.”
The research is published in the Environment International journal.
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