Small plastic fragments found in placentas

Animal studies found that microplastics can cause behavioural disorders and brain damage.

Maja Begovic 3 minute read December 16, 2020
Placenta study

Tiny fragments of plastic have been found in human placenta for the first time, according to a new study.

The study, which will be included in the Environment International research journal in January, found microplastics in four of the six placentas donated by women who had healthy pregnancies.

The placenta plays a major role in the proper development of the fetus — it supplies an unborn baby with oxygen and nutrition, removes waste products from the baby’s blood and acts as a barrier to block harmful substances. This is the first time researchers have found microplastics in human placenta. Exposure may have occurred through the respiratory system or gastrointestinal tract, the research suggests.

Tiny fragments of plastic are referred to as microplastics — they are usually smaller than an inch in diameter, but equally harmful to the environment as plastic of any size. They can occur when larger plastics break down or when commercial products, such as cosmetics, are manufactured. Microplastics can also be found in seafood and water.

“This study sheds new light on the level of human exposure to micro particles in general,” the research states. “Due to the crucial role of placenta in supporting the fetus 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 study also reported the presence of “pigmented microplastics” in human placentas, which are essentially paints and dyes found in handbags, car interiors, and other products.

Although more research is needed to assess the impact of microplastics on the health of an unborn baby, some animal studies found that microplastics can reach the brain of fish and cause behavioural disorders and brain damage.

“Further studies need to be performed to assess if the presence of microplastics in human placenta may trigger immune responses or may lead to the release of toxic contaminants,” the research states.

Every year, the global production of plastic generates more than 320 million tonnes, and nearly half of that comes from packaging. A recent study on Canadian plastic industry, markets and waste estimates that only about nine per cent of plastic is properly recycled.

According to the United Nations and its #CleanSeas campaign, up to 80 per cent of all litter in oceans is made up of plastic and it estimates that by 2050, “oceans will carry more plastic than fish.” In 2017, the UN announced ambitious measures to help reduce microplastics — and its impact on wild marine life — by more than 70 per cent over the next three decades.

Maja Begovic is a writer with

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