Last week The Guardian released an article about a report that revealed microplastics have been found in the placentas of unborn babies for the first time which has thrown scientists and doctors in a frenzy.
What are microplastics? Microplastics are small pieces of plastic that are less than five millimetres long which are largely found in the ocean and among aquatic life due to heavy pollution and plastic waste. These also come from microbeads, which are tiny beads made of polyethylene plastic that are found in health and beauty products, like cleanser-exfoliators and toothpastes. These tiny particles are not only consumed by us on a daily basis, but they are small enough to pass through water filtration systems and end up in oceans threatening marine life.
When consumed by aquatic animals, like turtles, fish, and other animals that depend on aquatic life, like birds (and eventually humans), these microplastics block the digestive tracts of the animals and end up stuffing their stomachs with plastic. Many experiments have been conducted which have found that fish that consume plastics had more liver damage and reduced their ability to metabolize drugs, pesticides, and other pollutants in the water.
A common misconception has been formed within casual discourse under the terrifying images of plastic islands and garbage islands is that the only plastic we should be concerned about are the large, visible, plastics. However, that is only the beginning. There are many forms of plastics and they react differently to different additives such as pigments, UV rays, stiffeners and softeners, etc. All of these additives contribute to its interaction with its surroundings pre- and post-waste. Some of the chemicals found in these additives in reaction to the plastics are considered destructive or at least interfering with normal hormonal functions in humans, some dangerous for brain development in fetuses and infants.
Once inside humans, through both direct consumption in cosmetics, water and air, and indirect consumption through seafood, these chemicals and microplastics even in the lowest dosages can have long-term effects such as reproductive problems, cancers, weakened immune systems, etc. Even the plastic wrappings on the fruits and vegetables we buy at the grocery stores are at play here, although deemed safe enough by researchers, there is not enough oversight because manufacturers can use cheaper substances in their plastics that still fall under the ‘safe’ categorization.
One study in summer 2019 found that Americans, just by eating, drinking, and breathing, ingest at least 74,000 microplastic particles every year. Another study by the World Wildlife Fund and the University of Newcastle estimated that people consume about five grams of plastic a week.
So, the revelation of microplastics now being found in unborn babies is cause for a lot of concern because it is an unprecedented finding with enormous implications on the future of humankind. These microplastics were found in the placentas of four healthy women who had normal pregnancies and births, and the plastics were small enough to be carried within the bloodstream and there is uncertainty whether they entered the babies’ bodies or not.
Antony Ragusa, director of obstetrics and gynaecology at the San Giovanni Calibita Fatebenefratelli hospital in Rome, and who led the study which the Guardian wrote about, published in the journal Environmental International, said that “It is like having a cyborg baby: no longer composed only of human cells, but a mixture of biological and inorganic entities.” The researchers concluded in their study that further research needs to be done in order to pinpoint the immune responses to the presence of these microplastics may cause. It can cause reduced foetal growth, the release of toxic contaminants within the body, and many other effects unknown.
“Babies are being born pre-polluted.” A jarring statement made by Elizabeth Salter Green, from the chemicals charity Chem Trust.
Microplastics are not a new phenomenon, but there is surprisingly low research on the effect it has on humans. The rapid growth of plastic waste over the last five to seven decades has not created enough time for researchers to truly test the long term effects microplastics can have on humans aside from general results of it affecting our organ health. Microplastics can be consumed through food or water, and even inhaled just from the air due to air pollution.
What do we do then? It is quite scary to think about the fact that newborn babies are being born polluted, however, there are steps we can take to at least combat it, and prevent it for ourselves. The researchers in this study suspect that physiology, diet or lifestyle can be contributors to their findings as well, recommending mindfulness in physical activity and grocery shopping.
Try to avoid buying single-use plastic water bottles which release millions of plastic particles in our bodies, and invest in good quality reusable water bottles. Similarly, avoid plastic food containers that are known to have issues and have phthalates, styrene and bisphenols in them. Avoid buying fruits and vegetables that are wrapped in plastic and styrofoam (you know, the pre-cut fruits and veggies) that are exposed to the microplastics, no matter how much you wash them. Instead, if possible and accessible, try buying from local fresh markets and use various fruit and vegetable cleansing techniques (e.g. using hydrogen peroxide) to help in preserving your food and reducing your plastic ingestion, even if it is by the slightest. Regularly vacuum dust in your houses as household dust can expose you to chemicals including phthalates, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, and flame retardants.