Nano and microplastics are ever-present in our lives. From plastic cooking utensils causing us to consume them in our dinners to single-use plastics in the ocean that break down and find their way into the fish we eat.
It is tough to avoid them.
According to a research paper from Environmental Health Perspectives, “the impacts of plastic particles are unexplored, especially with regard to early life exposures.”
This is a concerning statement. Humans are starting to consume plastics before they are even born, and we are not sure how much this can affect individuals as they grow or humankind in the long run.
Let’s look at what we know about pregnancy-relevant exposures to nano and microplastics and what we at the LifeSaver project are trying to do about it.
What are nano and microplastics, and what do we know about them?
Of all the plastic waste ever made, around 79% has accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.
Just 12% has been incinerated, and only 9% recycled. The plastic that ends up in the natural environment often wears away over time and becomes smaller and smaller. Eventually, they become nano and microplastics: tiny pieces of plastic that break down until they are microscopic… And they are everywhere!
It is estimated that there are around 46,000 pieces of microplastics in every square mile of the ocean on this planet.
Nanoplastics are categorised as 1 to <1000nm, and microplastics are 1 to <1000μm in size. It has been discovered that plastic products contain more than 40,000 chemicals, and certain plastics leech over 80% of those chemicals into the water that we are consuming.
There has been research into the chemicals found in plastics. However, there hasn’t been as much research on their presence as particles or their impact on humans. In saying that, it is thought that the potential damage could include inflammatory reactions in sensitive areas, particles translocating through biological barriers due to their small size, or the particles might become carriers of chemical mixtures, which can contribute to chemical exposures (Nanoplastics can cross cellular membranes and affect the functioning of cells.)
Another area of concern regarding microfibres is presented in the form of synthetic textiles. According to a HAL Open Science paper, textile fibres have been studied in indoor and outdoor environments to determine the average human exposure.
The indoor concentration was found to be 1.0–60.0 fibres/m3 , whereas the outdoor concentration was much lower at 0.3–1.5 fibres/m3 . The deposition rate indoors was 1586–11,130 fibres per day/m3 which accumulate to around 190-670 fibres/mg of dust. The largest concern with these concentrations is that it increases exposure to humans, which can cause adverse health effects.
Pregnancy is a sensitive timeframe for environmental exposure. Over the last few decades, pregnant women worldwide have been exposed to an extraordinarily high amount of plastics in their environments. Microplastics were recently discovered in the human placenta, meconium, and infant stool.
Toxicants from plastics that a mother is exposed to while pregnant and those that have accumulated over her life can be released to her child during pregnancy and breastfeeding. The impacts of this on humans of this young and vulnerable age and in the long run are still almost entirely unknown.
Moving forward, research is imperative surrounding the contribution of these nano and microplastics to the developmental origins of health and disease.
What can be done about nano and microplastics?
The Environmental Health Perspectives believes that understanding the relationships between exposure and risk is highly complex due to the “high volume of heterogeneous data from different cohorts and different exposure routes.”
Once more data becomes available, “advanced information technologies can be applied to facilitate acquiring, storing, and managing knowledge and big data for the development of evidence-based toxicology.”
Our objective in the LifeSaver project is to develop a digitally cloned in vitro system.
This system would be capable of predicting the safety and risk of substances towards fetuses and be for the emulation of prenatal conditions surrounding the uterine/placental interface.
Ornella Parolini from Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (a consortium partner on the LifeSaver Project) put it succinctly: “LifeSaver aims to simulate the end of the 1st trimester (about 12 weeks gestational age) placenta when the embryo becomes a fetus, and the blood circulatory system starts to operate.
In literature, very little information is available about the exact structure and functionality of the human placenta at this early development phase. So surely, the system LifeSaver intends to build up is very complex and, thus, very challenging, but the different types of approaches, such as modelling, computational analyses, simulations, and the strong collaboration based on the expertise of all the partners within the consortium, will make it a success.”
The LifeSaver concept is based on an original idea of hybridizing several innovative technologies, integrating digital in silico/in vitro (bio digital twin) systems.
This enables effective screening of chemicals and pharmaceuticals which might affect pregnant women’s health, reducing animal, preclinical and clinical testing.
Presently, this is not possible with any other existing approaches to the same confidence level. Through the LifeSaver project, we believe there is hope for the future. We strive to discover the effects of pregnancy exposure to nano and microplastics, thereby reducing the damage they could be doing.