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What are microplastics? Alarming study finds particles in every human placenta tested

Microplastics could be a factor in the rise in illnesses such as irritable bowel syndrome, scientists say (David Davies/PA Wire)
Microplastics could be a factor in the rise in illnesses such as irritable bowel syndrome, scientists say (David Davies/PA Wire)

Scientists have said they are concerned after recent tests showed the presence of microplastics in every human placenta they looked at in a recent study.

They said the results have left them worried about the potential health impacts on developing babies in the womb. In the study, 62 placental tissue samples were analysed postnatally and there were microplastics present in every single one – with the most common found to be polyethylene, which is used to make plastic bags and bottles.

A different study that looked at 17 human arteries found microplastics in all of them.

Microplastics have recently been discovered in human blood and breast milk, and concerns are growing about plastics in the human body.

A recent study found that humans consume and inhale up to 211,000 microplastic particles in a single year and, as a result of the demand for plastic, microplastics are part of daily life – even if we can’t see them.

The study said: “Microplastics can now be found on top of our planet’s highest mountains and at the bottom of our deepest oceans. These tiny particles move in our air, through water systems, and even animal and human bodies. In short, they lurk in every corner of our planet’s ecosystems.”

Scientists say they do not know the impact on health but said microplastics have been shown to cause damage to human cells in the laboratory and can even be responsible for clogging arteries.

Prof Matthew Campen at the University of New Mexico in the US, who led the research, said: “If we are seeing effects on placentas, then all mammalian life on this planet could be impacted. That’s not good.”

He said the growing concentration of microplastics found in the study suggested they were now everywhere, adding that there is a possibility they could be responsible for the rise in some illnesses seen in the last decade, including “inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer in people under 50”, and added that he feared it “is only getting worse”.

He said: “Microplastics carry with them substances which, acting as endocrine disruptors, could cause long-term effects on human health.

“The concentration of microplastics in placentas was especially troubling. The tissue grows for only eight months, as it starts to form about a month into pregnancy. Other organs of your body are accumulating over much longer periods of time.”

The research, published in the Toxicological Sciences journal, found microplastics in all the placenta samples tested, with concentrations ranging from 6.5 to 790 micrograms per gram of tissue. PVC and nylon were the most common plastics detected, after polyethylene.

The microplastics were detected by the use of chemicals and a centrifuge to separate them from the tissue, they were then heated and their characteristic chemical signatures were analysed.

Microplastics were first detected in placentas in 2020 in samples from four healthy women who had normal pregnancies and births in Italy.