For the first time, microplastics were found inside the placentas of unborn babies — which the researchers described as "a matter of great concern" in a recent study published in the journal Environmental International.
Microplastics found in unborn baby placentas
The ultimate effect of microplastics residing inside human bodies is still unknown, but scientists said the synthetic particles can deliver chemicals associated with long-term damage — like potentially interfering with a fetus' nascent immune system, The Guardian reports.
These microplastics were likely consumed or breathed in via the mother hosting the fetus, and were found in the placentas from four healthy women who typically had normal births and pregnancies.
Microplastics were found on both the fetal and maternal surfaces of the placenta — in addition to inside the membrane, where the fetus grows.
Fetal microplastics were generally 0.01 mm in size
The study describes one dozen plastic particles discovered in the placenta — although only roughly 4% of each placenta was studied, which means the total number of microplastics could be substantially greater.
All of the microplastics analyzed were ones with earlier colors — dyed red, pink, orange, or blue — and may initially have stemmed from packaging, paints, or even cosmetics and other personal care products.
The microplastics were generally 10 microns in size (roughly 0.01 mm), which means they are small enough to enter the bloodstream. These particles may have made entry into the bodies of the unborn babies, but the researchers were unable to determine this with certainty.
Microplastic particles could reduce fetus growth
"It is like having a cyborg baby: no longer composed only of human cells, but a mixture of biological and inorganic entities," said Director of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Antonio Ragusa of the San Giovanni Calibita Fatebenefratelli hospital, in Rome, who led the new study. "The mothers were shocked."
"Due to the crucial role of placenta in supporting the fetus' development and in acting as an interface with the external environment, the presence of potentially harmful plastic particles is a matter of great concern," wrote the researchers in their study. "Further studies need to be performed to assess if the presence of microplastics may trigger immune responses or may lead to the release of toxic contaminants, resulting in harm."
Possible effects of microplastics on developing fetuses include reduced growth, said the researchers. The troublesome particles weren't discovered in placentas examined from two other women participating in the study, which could be the result of different physiology, lifestyle, or diet, added the researchers.
Babies fed formula milk via plastic bottle swallow millions of particles daily
Pollution via microplastics has spread to every corner of the world — from Mount Everest's summit to the deepest, darkest oceans. Humans already consume tiny plastic particles in food, water, and even breathe them in.
The ultimate effect of microplastics on living bodies is unknown, but scientists emphasize the serious need to evaluate this threat — especially for infants. In October of this year, scientists announced how babies fed formula milk via plastic bottles swallow literally millions of particles per day, The Guardian reports.
In August, a team of researchers declared that microplastics and nanoplastics were found in human tissue — including organs. "There's evidence that plastic is making its way into our bodies, but very few studies have looked for it there," said Charlie Rolsky, a teaching assistant at Arizona State University, according to a Phys.org report. "And at this point, we don't know whether this plastic is just a nuisance or whether it represents a human health hazard."
We're all plastic cyborgs, mostly for worse
Earlier in December, another study from Science Advances showed how a piece of microplastic becomes increasingly efficient at sticking to and sneaking inside of living cells after only two to four weeks of floating around in an ocean or freshwater body of water.
Back in 2019, researchers discovered particles of air pollution present on the fetal side of placentas — which means, in addition to microplastics from the current study, unborn babies are also exposed to the toxic air churned out unyieldingly from motor traffic and the continual burning of fossil fuel worldwide.
There's much to learn about the effects of microplastics and nanoplastics on living organisms. From sneaking into living cells to attaching themselves to the placenta of unborn babies, the grim reality of microplastics means much of humanity is likely already saturated with synthetic particles. While this technically makes many of us cyborgs, we have to say the lack of positive augmentation to our daily lives leaves us wanting.