For the first time in history, researchers have found microplastics in the placentas of four out of six women. The placenta is the temporary structure that provides oxygen and nutrients to the growing baby and removes waste products from the baby’s blood.
The scientists pointed out that this is obviously “a matter of extraordinary concern.”
How the microplastics were found
This was an observational study that took place in Italy during the spring of 2020. It was approved by the Ethical Committee Lazio 1 and it was carried out in full accordance with ethical principles.
All recruited women were healthy and had a vaginal delivery at term of pregnancy. To prevent plastic contamination, a plastic-free protocol was adopted during the entire experiment. Using only cotton gloves and metal tools, no plastic, the 6 babies were delivered.
Using a method called Raman Microspectroscopy, revealed the presence of pigmented microplastics and of man-made particles in the human placenta.
How the plastic got there.
Microplastics may have accessed the bloodstream and to reach the placenta from the maternal respiratory system or the gastrointestinal tract. The microplastics were under 10 microns in size (0.01mm), which means they were small enough to be conveyed in the circulation system.
An alarming 2019 study from the University of Newcastle and the WWF found that humans swallow an average of 2,000 microplastics each week (about the equivalent of a credit card in size).
According to the researchers behind that study, the top source of microplastic ingestion is drinking water (both tap and bottled), followed by shellfish, beer, and salt.
Twelve plastic particles were found in four of the six subjects. While only about 4% of each placenta was studied, the researchers indicated that the actual amount of microplastics in each placenta is likely much higher.
All the particles they found were colored blue, red, orange, or pink and initially came from plastic, paint, or makeup.
“It’s like having a cyborg baby: no longer composed only of human cells, but a mixture of a biological entity and inorganic entities,” said Antonio Ragusa, head of obstetrics and gynecology at the San Giovanni Calibita Fatebenefratelli emergency clinic in Rome, and who headed the examination. “The moms were stunned.”
The effects of plastic in the body
Potentially, microparticles and microplastics may alter several cellular regulating pathways in the placenta, possibly affecting maternal immune tolerance. In short, that is the immune tolerance shown towards the fetus and placenta during pregnancy.
This tolerance counters the immune response that would normally result in the rejection of something foreign in the body, as can happen in cases of miscarriage.
Microplastics entering the human body via direct exposures through ingestion or inhalation can lead to an array of health impacts. These can include inflammation, genotoxicity, oxidative stress, apoptosis, and necrosis, which are linked to an array of negative health outcomes. Studies have shown that plastic and microplastic can cause cancer, cardiovascular diseases, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic inflammation, auto-immune conditions, neurodegenerative diseases, and stroke.
How did we get here?
As I consider this issue of waste and the culture of discarding, I can clearly see how we got here.
All the past generations have made their tools with the hope that they would last a long time and they would be able to pass them on to the next generation. Now we are able to make tools from materials that will last for generations, but we don’t hold the same value for them.
Prices for these new things are so low, that if it does break, it’s easier to buy a new one. The old one just gets tossed because it doesn’t make sense to bother with trying to find out where or if it can be recycled.
Short term, plastic makes life easier.
If you have ever moved to a different house, it’s interesting how things become unimportant. For example, the old plastic shower curtain, the plastic hangers that don’t match your other ones, or the beaded bracelet that broke and rolled under the refrigerator. They quickly get thrown away and never thought of again. Then they go and sit in a landfill for hundreds of years.
That’s if everything goes right, if not, and maybe the garbage bag breaks, and some of those beads fall out on your driveway. Then they get washed into the street where they fall in the storm drain where they are washed into the nearest river.
And as all rivers end in the ocean, fish and birds mistake the plastic for food. There is a study that says that 90% of all seabirds have plastic in their stomachs.
Now the problem feels closer to home.
Collectively, we are producing new plastic at a growing rate, with no good solutions to slow it down yet. More plastic has been made in the last 10 years than the entire century before, combined. And of that huge amount, about 50% is single-use that is thrown away.
It is projected that, if nothing changes, there will be more microplastics and macroplastics in the ocean than fish, by the year 2050.
There are more and more organizations in the past 15 years that are cleaning rivers, beaches, and the oceans of plastic, and recycling the plastic into useful products, but it’s not fixing the issue.
Have we forgotten how connected we are?
When we realize that this world is all connected and the air we breathe today was in Hawaii a few days ago maybe we will see how we need to change our habits with plastic.
There is a study that showed microplastic in 90% of sea salts. And while you might only use Himalayan salt in your house, who knows what your favorite restaurant uses.
Or maybe, to see that the microplastic is in the unborn and affecting our future more directly than ever will influence change for the greater good.
Written by Jay Weaver, published 12/24/2020