Nanoscale plastic particles, such as those that permeate most food and water, pass from pregnant rats to their unborn offspring and may harm fetal development, according to a new study.
“A lot is still unknown, but this is certainly cause for concern and further study,” says Philip Demokritou, a professor of nanoscience and environmental bioengineering at Rutgers University’s School of Public Health.
Corrosion chips microscopic particles from the billions of tons of plastics exposed to the elements in the environment. These particles mix with the food we eat and the air we breathe. A typical person ingests a credit card’s worth every week, says Demokritou.
Previous studies of pregnant laboratory animals have found that adding these plastics to food affects their offspring in many ways, but those studies did not determine whether the mothers gave the plastics to their babies in utero.
For the study, published in the journal Nanomaterials, the researchers administered specially marked nanoscale plastics to five pregnant rats. Subsequent imaging found that these nanoplastic particles were infecting not only their placentas but also their offspring’s livers, kidneys, hearts, lungs and brains.
These results indicate that ingestion of nanoscale polystyrene plastics can breach the intestinal barrier of pregnant mammals, the placental maternal-fetal barrier, and all fetal tissues. Future studies will investigate how different types of plastics cross cell barriers, how the size of plastic particles affects the process, and how plastics harm fetal development, the researchers say.
“The use of plastics has increased since the 1940s due to their low cost and multi-use properties. Of the 9 billion metric tons produced over the past 60 years, 80% ended up in the environment, and only 10% was recycled,” says Demokritou, who also holds appointments at the Rutgers School of Engineering and directs the Nanoscience and Advanced Materials Research Center . at the Institute of Environmental Sciences and Occupational Health.
“Petroleum-based plastics are not biodegradable, but weathering and photooxidation break them down into small fragments. These tiny fragments, called micro-nanoplastics, are found in human lungs, intestines, and blood, raising human health concerns.
“As public health researchers, we are trying to assess the health risks from emerging contaminants to inform policy makers and develop mitigation strategies. The goal is also to increase the reuse and recycling of plastics and even replace them with biodegradable, biopolymer-based plastics. This is part of our larger societal goal towards sustainability.”
Feeding pregnant laboratory animals nanoscale plastics – a nanometer is one billionth of a metre, so the particles are far too small to see – has been shown to restrict the growth of their offspring and harm their development -brain, liver, testes, immune systems, and metabolism.
The amounts of nanoscale plastics ingested by pregnant women have not yet been shown to do the same to their babies, although some studies suggest that plastics affect human embryonic development, says Demokritou.
Source: Rutgers University