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Microplastics have been discovered in tissue samples from the placentas of four fetuses, according to a recent study published in the journal Environment International.

The pregnant women involved in the report went on to have healthy births, but the presence of microplastics in developing fetuses demands further research, according to the authors of the study. Microplastics can cause inflammatory and other immune responses in human tissue, and often carry toxic substances that can leach into the bloodstream.

“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 researchers wrote. “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, resulting harmful for pregnancy.”

The researchers found 12 microplastics, but only surveyed roughly 4% of the participants' placenta tissue, which suggests that the total number of plastics present in their bodies could be much higher. The plastics were dyed various colors, such as red and blue, suggesting that they may have originated as packaging or plastic fibers of some sort, the Guardian reports.  

This would fit in with the general understanding of microplastics. Most forms of plastic, if left to break down in the environment, will eventually disintegrate into smaller pieces until they get so small they’re basically invisible to the human eye. 

These tiny plastics then pervade the planet, carried by air and water currents alike. Microplastics have been found in tap water, bottled water, and salt. They've ascended to the tallest mountains and descended to the deepest trenches of the ocean. There may be 125 trillion microplastics in the ocean alone.

They’ve been found in the very air you breathe

The prevalence of microplastics increases with each year. More than 300 million tons of plastic are produced annually and only 9% of it gets recycled.

Plastic production is expected to increase by 40% over the next decade due to the fossil fuel industry. The New York Times reports that the industry plans to flood Africa, in particular, with cheap plastics over the next several years. 

Due to growing global awareness, efforts are being made at grassroots, subnational, national, and international levels to stop plastic pollution. More than 180 countries have pledged to curb plastic waste and invest in viable recycling infrastructure. 

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has derailed recent gains by causing a surge in plastic waste, particularly due to the use of medical equipment.

The impacts of microplastics on human health are still unclear, but it's not hard to deduce what they might be. You wouldn’t gobble up the plastic bag that your chips came in, after all. In marine animals, consuming plastic waste has led to devastating consequences. Whales, turtles, seals, and even krill have died from eating plastic waste that they mistake for food. 

This latest study suggests that plastic waste may now be carried in the human body from the get-go.

“It is like having a cyborg baby: 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.”


Defend the Planet

Researchers Have Discovered Microplastics in Placentas

By Joe McCarthy