More and more scientific studies are showing that micro- and nanoplastics (MNPs) are increasingly ubiquitous throughout the natural environment and in our bodies. They have been detected almost everywhere scientists have looked from snow in the artic to the deep oceans of the Pacific. Testing has also found them in our blood, lungs, and most recently, in the placenta, a temporary organ that is crucial for maternal and fetal health during pregnancy. However, there is still very little data on the effects these MNPs might be having on health, especially during pregnancy – a fragile period of development with increased susceptibility to environmental pollutants. Research within the AURORA project is therefore focusing specifically on better understanding of the potential impacts of MNPs on early-life health.
In a scientific article published in November 2022 in the peer-reviewed journal Science of the Total Environment, six AURORA scientists review our current understanding of the uptake, transport, and toxicity of MNPs in the placenta, including an overview of the different in vitro and ex vivo human placental models that exist. Importantly, it also identifies current knowledge gaps and offers an outlook on future research needed to better assess the potential hazards and risks of MNPs to both maternal and fetal health.
Some of the main findings in the study include that (i) toxicity studies are urgently needed to investigate MNP’s potential influence on placental development as well as key metabolic, endocrine, and immune functions; (ii) existing experimental data is based largely on acute exposures using polystyrene particles, and more research is needed to understand longer-term exposures as well as the uptake and toxicity of the many other plastic types that can exist in micro- and nanoform. Review of the existing human-relevant placenta models found multiple models that are suitable and could be used to fill many of the key knowledge gaps.
“This review study was a significant first step in understanding which knowledge gaps we need to address within AURORA to help holistically assess the safety of MNPs for early life health,” explains Hanna Dusza, a researcher at Utrecht University and author of the study.
“It helps us, and really the entire MNP research field as a whole, to have a technical overview of the in vitro and ex vivo tools available and identify how we can adapt them to start carrying out needed experiments,” added Jeske van Boxel, the study’s other lead author and researcher from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
The study was carried out within the AURORA work package on hazard assessment and involved collaboration across three European research universities. All of AURORA’s published research is available on our results page.
Dusza, H., van Boxel, J. et al. (November 20, 2022). “Experimental human placental models for studying uptake, transport and toxicity of micro- and nanoplastics.” Science of the Total Environment