New Technology Emerges to Measure Microplastics in Human Tissue

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Feb. 26, 2024 – Researchers examining human placentas for evidence of microplastics found measurable amounts in every single one.

The findings were published this month in the journal Toxicological Sciences. For the study, researchers used a technology called saponification on the donated placenta tissue that works in a way similar to how soap is made. The samples were then spun using an ultracentrifuge, which is a device that can spin as fast as 150,000 rotations per minute. After the spin, a tiny pellet of plastic remained, which was then heated until gas emissions from the plastic could be analyzed to find out what type of plastic it was.

“The gas emission goes into a mass spectrometer and gives you a specific fingerprint. It’s really cool," lead researcher Matthew Campen, PhD, a professor in the University of New Mexico Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, said in a statement

Nearly every one of the 62 samples analyzed showed evidence of polyethylene, which is a chemical compound used to make plastic. It’s commonly used in packaging. Polyvinyl chloride (often called PVC) and nylon were also common.

The authors said the amount of microplastics they found varied widely from one placenta tissue sample to another, and there were “surprisingly high values in some samples.” The variation could be due to error, despite extensive measures taken to ensure accuracy, they wrote.

“The other potential is that the range is real and driven by a combination of environmental, dietary, genetic, maternal age, and lifestyle factors,” they continued, noting that other early studies have suggested the possibility that the minuscule plastics may contribute to restriction of fetal growth.

The placenta provides oxygen and nutrients to a baby inside the uterus during pregnancy.

The researchers said their findings were particularly important because they show it's possible to accurately estimate the mass of plastics in human tissue. Scientists and medical researchers have been racing to better understand the impact on human health from microplastics, and from the even smaller nanoplastics.

“This method, paired with clinical metadata, will be pivotal to evaluating potential impacts of [nanoplastics and microplastics] on adverse pregnancy outcomes,” the authors wrote.