One of the modern inventions with the greatest impact on mankind was plastic, whose practicality and versatility led the industry to manufacture millions of tons annually. However, the increasing production of items, some of which are rapidly disposable, has become a problem given the longevity of the material in the environment. Both environmental degradation and the everyday use of plastic produce microplastics, tiny particles smaller than a millimeter, already present all over the planet: in air, water, plants, animals and food.
In recent years, plastic microparticles and nanoparticles have been detected in human organs, feces and blood, but the consequences of this stock in our bodies are still not well understood. In addition to the potential toxicity of the plastic components themselves, the material that degrades in the environment can add other pollutants, including toxic compounds that, although banned decades ago, still persist in polluting the planet.
Some studies indicate that smaller microplastics can enter our bodies through ingestion or even inhalation, and then travel through the blood and penetrate cells, accumulating in biological tissues. Even the placenta can become infected: in 2021, a group of Italian researchers discovered for the first time the presence of microplastics measuring 5 to 10 micrometers in four of the six placentas analyzed. The fragments were colored and some were identified as polypropylene, a type of plastic widely used in packaging. The remaining particles may come from paints, cosmetics and personal care products. More recent research analyzed other placental samples, obtained from vaginal delivery or caesarean section, and found microplastics in all of them. The “plasticentas”, as they were called, are a clear representation of this new generation of humanity.
It is not yet known for sure what risks to the health of the fetus plastic pregnant women pose, but the findings are alarming, as the placenta carries out the exchange of substances between the mother and the fetus and has other key roles during pregnancy. Experiments performed on mice showed brain, cognitive and behavioral changes in puppies whose mothers received large amounts of microplastics. Another effect seen in these females is a decrease in fertility and changes in the immune system. Male mice can also suffer the consequences of a “plasticized” diet, with a decrease in testosterone levels and parameters of sperm quality, in addition to damage to the cells of the reproductive system.
If the baby is already exposed to microplastics from pregnancy, after birth the exposure is even greater, since most of the objects that surround it are made of plastic. If you are bottle feeding, swallowing will be inevitable. And not even breast milk is safe: a study from that year found microplastics from different sources, such as polyethylene and polypropylene, in 26 of 34 samples analyzed. The most likely hypothesis is that the mothers were contaminated by consuming food, drink and personal hygiene products and thus the microparticles passed into the milk. But the simple fact of breathing already makes us susceptible to infection. Again, we haven’t yet been able to assess whether this actually poses a risk to our health, and future research will need to assess the damage exposure from birth can do to us.
Meanwhile, the pollution caused by the excessive presence of plastic in the world needs to be addressed. On an individual level, we can reduce our consumption of plastic items and packaging. At a collective level, including industries, foundations and governments, it is urgent to adopt measures to slow production and encourage reuse — adequate support and funding for science will be essential to make future generations healthier and viable.
Rossana Soletti has a PhD in Morphological Sciences and is a professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.
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