For the first time, researchers have found microplastic particles in human placenta, an organ that develops in the uterus during pregnancy, of unborn babies for the first time, which according to them is "a matter of great concern." The placenta provides oxygen and nutrition to the baby in the womb while removing waste matter.
According to a study published in the journal Environment International in early December, scientists revealed that these particles are capable of carrying chemicals that could lead to long-term or upset the foetus's developing immune system.
The report further noted that these microplastic traces may have been consumed or breathed in by the mothers.
However, the health impact of microplastics on the body is not yet known.
What is alarming is that the researchers found these particles in the placentas of four healthy women who had normal pregnancies and births. They discovered microplastics on both the foetal and maternal sides of the placenta as well as in the membrane within which the foetus grows.
This means that the women involved in the study, had 'cyborg babies', "no longer composed only of human cells, but a mixture of biological and inorganic entities," said Antonio Ragusa, director of obstetrics and gynaecology at the San Giovanni Calibita Fatebenefratelli hospital in Rome, who led the study. "The mothers were shocked."
Researchers further found a dozen plastic particles in the placenta, only about 4 per cent of which were analysed. But the analysis indicated that the total number of microplastics (in the placenta) was much higher. All the particles examined were plastics that had been dyed red, blue, orange or pink and may have initially come from paints, packaging, cosmetics, and personal care products.
The microplastics were primarily 10 microns in size (0.01mm), which means they are minute enough to be carried into the bloodstream. These particles may have entered the babies' bodies, however, the scientists were unable to evaluate this.
"Due to the crucial role of the placenta in supporting the foetus's development and in acting as an interface with the external environment, the presence of potentially harmful plastic particles is a matter of great concern. 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," the researchers concluded in the study.
The possible effect of microplastics on foetuses comprise reduced foetal growth, scientists noted, adding that the particles were not found in the placentas of two other women involved in the study, which might be the result of a different diet, physiology, or lifestyle.
Microplastics pollution is present in every part of the planet. Researchers say there is an urgent need to take stock of the issue, particularly for infants, as people are already known to consume these tiny particles through food, water, or breathing them in.