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Microplastics may harm fetal health

Exposure to microplastics during pregnancy is a cause for concern, according to research conducted at Utrecht University. 

The researchers found that even very large plastic particles can be taken up by placenta cells in a laboratory setting. 

The presence of microplastics in the placenta is a cause for concern given that in utero exposure to other particles, such as particulate matter (PM2.5) in air pollution, has been associated with complications in pregnancy such as pre-term birth and pre-eclampsia. 

The researchers also found that plastic particles can become a vector for other chemicals they encounter in the environment. This in turn could expose the fetus to a raft of potentially dangerous pollutants.

These pollutants include Polychlorinated Biphenyls – a group of manmade chemicals that have been shown to cause cancer in animals.

Researcher Hanna Dusza said: ‘The placenta is a complex temporary organ that plays an essential role during pregnancy. It is a lifeline for the developing baby, regulating the exchange of nutrients, gases and waste products between the mother and the fetus. The placenta is also an important endocrine organ, producing hormones crucial for the maintenance of pregnancy.

‘Ultrafine particles in air pollution can reach the placenta, possibly increasing the risk of pregnancy complications such as pre-eclampsia, pre-term birth or low birth weight. Recent studies have shown that microplastics are also detected in the placenta, though their effects are unclear. Our research shows that plastic particles of different sizes are efficiently taken up by placenta cells, where they may exert subtle effects on endocrine function.’

Professor Patricia Hunt added: ‘Chemicals used in plastics not only have the potential to harm our fertility but also to affect future generations.

‘Linking maternal and fetal exposure to birth outcomes, development, and adult disease would convince even persistent doubters of the harmful effects of plasticizing chemicals.

‘But we don’t have the luxury of time. We must put faith in experimental evidence and ensure that our estimates of human exposure are accurate.’

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