First Evidence of Air Pollution Particles and Metal Found in Human Placenta

According to research led by Queen Mary University of London, air pollution particles, including metals, have been found in the placentas of fifteen women in London. These research findings were published in the journal Science of The Total Environment. This new research was sponsored by Barts Charity.

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The study significantly demonstrates that matter of inhaled particles from air pollution is capable of moving from lungs to distant organs, and more importantly it can be taken up by certain cells in the human placenta, and potentially the fetus. However, as per researchers, more research is required to fully define the underlying mechanism of direct effect that pollution particles may have on the developing fetus.

Source: Public Health England

Previously known putative mechanism for the remote effect of inhaled polluted particles is that ultrafine, nano-sized fraction (<100 nm) particles transfers across the air-tissue barrier, thereby directly interacting with phagocytic tissue cells – immune cells that kills the foreign pathogenic particles. Although these particles are in other tissues as well. Therefore, it is still unclear whether these particles are located by cells residing in non-respiratory tissues.

Source: WHO

In the study, researchers used the human placenta to investigate the translocation of inhaled nanoparticles including metals from lungs to fetus. Study found nanoparticles including, carbon and metal-bearing nanoparticles in placentas, and they determined the size, shape, and composition of these exogenous particles.

At the Royal London Hospital, researchers analysed placentas from 15 consenting healthy women who willingly donated their placentas for the study following the birth of their children at the hospital. Following this, their pollution exposure was determined and 13 of the women experienced air pollution exposure. Techniques including light and electron microscopy, x-rays and magnetic analyses were used to analyse the cells from 15 females placentas.

High resolution scanning/transmission electron microscopy revealed abundant black particles. These particles closely resembled particulate matter from pollution were found in placental cells from all fifteen women. The majority of polluted and toxic particles found in the placental cells were carbon-based, but there was a non-negligent proportion of trace elements found, including, metals such as silica, phosphorus, calcium, iron and chromium, and more rarely, titanium, cobalt, zinc and cerium.

Data analysis of these nanoparticles significantly suggests the source of these polluted particles is predominantly originated from traffic-related sources, where most of the metals are found to be associated with fossil fuel combustion, arising from fuel and oil additives, and vehicle brake-wear.

Therefore, research concludes that distant organs from lungs are also adversely affected by the inhaled particulate matter (PM) from combustion and friction-sourced air pollution. This emphasized the need to prevent the further expansion of polluted particles in the air, giving rise to several health complication and putting human fetus most at the risk.

Lead author Professor Jonathan Grigg from Queen Mary University of London explained, “Our study for the first time shows that inhaled carbon particulate matter in air pollution, travels in the blood stream, and is taken up by important cells in the placenta.”

Source: University of California

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