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Researchers have detected microplastic particles in the placentas of unborn babies for the first time, a discovery that could mean long-term fetal developmental damage.
The Guardian reported that in a study, published in Volume 46 of The Journal Environment International, microplastics were discovered in placentas from four healthy women who had otherwise normal births and pregnancies. Researchers in Italy used Raman Microspectroscopy to evaluate the presence of microplastics in six human placentas. In total, they found 12 microplastic fragments on both the maternal and fetal sides of the placenta and in the membrane in which the fetus develops. The particles – likely breathed in or consumed by the mothers – had been dyed in various colors that indicate they were from plastics used for man-made paints, packaging, cosmetics, and personal care products.
The term microplastics refers to plastic particles that are smaller than 5 millimeters. They are categorized as primary or secondary microplastics depending on their origin. Primary microplastics are those that are intentionally manufactured to be small such as the microbeads used in personal care products. Secondary microplastics are tiny pieces of discarded products that have been broken down in the oceans by waves and sunlight.
Microplastics are found in the air, soil, freshwaters, and oceans across the globe. Researchers estimate that there are 12.5 to 125 trillion microplastic particles in the sea. They have infiltrated the food web and been discovered in the stomachs of omnivorous, herbivorous, and carnivorous species while killing marine life at concerning rates. Plastic fragments have also been linked to soil contamination and lower crop yields. Small fibers travel as dust through the air and are then inhaled by millions of different species — including humans.
Scientists are still working to understand the health effects of microplastics on humans. Microplastics have been discovered in drinking water, the air, and even our food. They’ve also been discovered in human organs. While it’s clear we are ingesting microplastics, it’s still not certain what this means for our health. Researchers have been able to prove that microplastics stunt growth, cause liver damage, and disrupt reproduction in marine wildlife. Whether this applies at the same scale for humans is inconclusive, but so far, no harm has been demonstrated.
The study on microplastics in the placenta revealed potential complications that researchers called “a matter of great concern.” The placenta plays a crucial role in supporting fetal development and acts as an interfacebetween the placenta and the external environment. The presence of outside, potentially harmful plastic particles could lead to numerous developmental problems and defects. The researchers concluded that further studies need to be performed to assess if the presence of microplastics in the placenta triggers immune responses or leads to the release of toxic contaminants.
Microplastics have infiltrated soil and water systems worldwide. Both primary and secondary microplastics have started to choke out natural ecosystems to the point that, at current rates, plastic will outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050. It’s clear that there’s a problem, but who will be held accountable?
Microplastics come from a variety of sources, but the majority of plastic pollution can be tied to 10 major companies. Environmental groups have begun to file plastic pollution lawsuits against Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and other major producers for polluting the ocean and misleading consumers about plastic’s recyclability. With research on microplastics and human health in the early stages, plastic toxic exposure could become a common environmental legal battle. Researchers’ discovery of microplastics in the placenta indicates potential birth injuries, developmental disorders, and other complications where plastic producers might face legal liability.
Carrington, Damian. “Microplastics Revealed in the Placentas of Unborn Babies.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 22 Dec. 2020, www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/22/microplastics-revealed-in-placentas-unborn-babies.
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Ragusa, Antonio, et al. “Plasticenta: First Evidence of Microplastics in Human Placenta.” Environment International, Pergamon, 2 Dec. 2020, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412020322297.
“Raman Spectroscopy.” Raman Spectroscopy - an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics, www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/raman-spectroscopy.
Royte, Elizabeth. “We Know Plastic Is Harming Marine Life. What About Us?” Magazine, 16 May 2018, www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/plastic-planet-health-pollution-waste-microplastics/.
Smillie, Susan. “From Sea to Plate: How Plastic Got into Our Fish.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 14 Feb. 2017, www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/feb/14/sea-to-plate-plastic-got-into-fish.
“Vol. II Identifying the World’s Top Corporate Plastic Polluters.” Break Free From Plastic, 2020, www.breakfreefromplastic.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/branded-2019.pdf.
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