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Monday, January 18, 2021


Keywords: plastics, plastic, microplastics, placenta, placentas, birth, pregnancy, pollution, spectroscopy, medicine, biology

(Read other plastic related stories here & here)

Ooooh, hello dear English speaking-reading-hearing reader, welcome back to me, @sciencemug, the blog/podcast/twitter&instagram accounts/entity behind the unsuccessful e-shop stuffngo on which tells you science stories while trying to understand, by reading tons of zoology textbooks, if millipedes don’t wear shoes ‘cause they generally are too broke to be able to afford such a huge expense, or ‘cause they prefer flip-folps but they can’t find a good wholesale dealer to make the order to, ooor ‘cause no millipede wants to be a cobbler given the high risk of dying of a heart-attack due to constant overwork, aaand which talks to you thanks to the voice, kidnapped via a voodoo-wireless trick, from a veeery very very dumb human.

Aaand which does all of this in Eng?ish, a language that is to proper English whatghwaahhghzzt!” is to something that make sense. 

Here I’m gonna tell you a story about human placentas and plastics!

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 Sulla plastica & la placenta umana: ecco a voi la “plasticenta” (Pt1)

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Pieces of plastic have been found, for the first time ever, in human placentas. The placentas in question were indeed those of four healthy women who have had smooth pregnancies and deliveries.

The discovery is the result of a study, published (P) in the science journal Environment International, made by a group of Italian researchers (aka the Italian Brains aka the ITBs) led by Medical Doctor Antonio Ragusa, Head of the Department of Woman, Mother and Newborn of the San Giovanni Calibíta Fatebenefratelli Hospital, in Rome.

Soo dear reader, the story goes like this.

A bunch of researchers, in Italy, decides to investigate if there’s plastic in the placentas of pregnant women.

More precisely, Dr. Ragusa and colleagues look for microplastics, that are commonly defined as all those plastic particles that are smaller than half a centimeter.

Now, dear reader, I know you’re a fast thinker, so in your mind you just wondered why is that half a centimeter is the limit for microplastics, instead of, I dunno, two millimeters or the thickness of a hair of the bear of Masha and the Bear? Well, buddy, here’s a fun fact for you ‘bout this.

The science community

goes with the just mentioned definition of microplastics since 2008, although there still be not an international agreement upon it (1). Anyway, that year the definition is proposed by researchers gathered at a meeting hosted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the science driven US agency which mission is, among other things, “to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources (source: NOAA). 

Aaaand the scientists at that meeting don’t come up with that working “less than 5 millimeters size definition as the consequence of a deep hallucinatory state induced by the dare choice of an after-after-after official dinner “Truth or dare” game in which the dare was to collectively drink - while hold upside down by the semi-professional sumo fighters attending, at the same location, a meeting called “Knitting and the art of waistline maintenance: the path of a true warrior” - a whole big bottle of a famous soda drink right before gulping down a fistful of famous candy which name rhymes with… Well with something ending with “ntos”.

Nope, dear reader.

The scientists at the 2008 NOAA meeting propose the 5 mm upper limit for microplastics not because of hallucinations, and not even because of actual scientific evidence. They do it because of their pragmatism, since particles of that size were considered more likely to be ingested [by animals] compared to larger items (1).

Now, pal, back on track.

Let’s see how the Italian Brains proceed in their study, study that, by the way, is approved by the Ethical Committee of reference and complies with the Code of Ethics of the World Medical Association for experiments done on humans.

The ITBs follow five steps.

First, they design a plastic-free protocol to collect the placentas, in order to avoid risks of plastic contamination of such samples.

The protocol foresees, among other things, that cotton gloves be used by obstetricians and midwives who help the women in labor. Moreover, only cotton towels are used in the delivery room, the umbilical cords are “clamped and cut with metal clippers(P), and the doctors who then deal with the placentas wear cotton gloves too.

The placentas, besides, are put into metal containers and, right after that, they are sectioned into pieces of about 20 to 30 gr (the mean weight is 23.3gr) which are finally stored at -20°C in bottles made entirely of glass and sealed with metal lids (aaand, ‘bout these non-plastic stuff, mate, be sure to read the funny story told by Dr. Ragusa in the interview he gave us, interview that you’ll find, when we publish it, at the bottom of the last part of this post).

Fetus & the plastics
Fetus & the palstics (by @sciencemug)
[Pregnant woman pic, by freestocks, is a free pic (source: Unsplash);
plastics symbols pic by Clker-Free-Vector-Images is a free to use image (source:; all pics adapted by @sciencemug]

The second step followed by the ITBs in their study is to enroll volunteers women who have normal pregnancies and vaginal deliveries (so no C-section performed).

The women, to be selected, must not have all sort of health problems, such as gastrointestinal diseases, cancer, organ transplantation, HIV, or other serious conditions. They must be non-smokers, and they also must not be drunkards, that is they have to score less than ten in the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test, a test “developed [in 1989 and then updated in 1992] by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a simple method of screening for excessive drinking (see).

The pregnant volunteers, besides, are excluded by the ITBs potential placentas donor list if they: followpeculiar diets prescribed for particular medical conditions (four weeks before delivery); [have] diarrhoea or constipation (two weeks before delivery); [take] antibiotics [and/or other medications that can interfere with the normal job done by the intestine] (two weeks before delivery); [go through] invasive or abrasive dental treatments (two weeks before delivery); [and, finally, are part of any other] clinical study (four weeks before delivery)(P).

Lastly, the week before the delivery, the soon-to-be-moms have to answer a questionnaire about their diet (“omnivorous, vegetarian, vegan, with no diet restriction [...] and the use of toothpastes and cosmetics containing [microplastics] or synthetic polymers [in general] (P)

So, dear reader, to summarize, the women selected by the ITBs are not sick and have healthy life styles. 

The third out of five phase of the Italian Brains’ study is to actually collect the placentas, and, as mentioned above, to section them into pieces with a mean weight of 23.3gr, and to store them at -20°C in non-plastic containers.

These portions of placentas are taken from the maternal side and the fetal side of the placentas, and also from the chorioamniotic membranes, the two membranes - chorion (outer one) and amnion (inner one) - that form the embryo sac, namely the protective structure which surrounds the fetus.

The fourth stage of Dr. Ragusa and colleagues’ research is to chemically treat and filtrate the samples in order to prepare them for the fifth and final stage of the study, meaning the specimens’ analysis.

Before going on with the final analysis, though, the good smart Italian scientists check for potential plastic contamination of their samples. To do this, the ITBs indeed test three controls, or, as they call ‘em, “procedural blanks(P). These three blanks are specimen “obtained following the same [chemical and filtration] procedure [...], but without placenta samples [involved, and with the procedural blanks] maintained close to [the placenta] samples during their manipulation(P).

So, dear reader, at this point the Italian Brains have the super checked material they need ready to go under the analysis which is ment to find out whether such material contain tiny pieces of plastics or not. But, how does this analysis work precisely?

Does it involve, for instance, a pre-industrial alchemical ritual by which a barrel of oil is given self-awareness and the ability to speak - with, by the way, a surprisingly warm and soothing voice – so to try and sell to its offspring (meaning derivative products like plastics), in case it detect ‘em nearby, its new book entitled: “1001.4 jokes on green energy – and some more!”?

Eeehehehe! The answer, pal, after the commercial break! 


Does plastic scare the heck out of you so much that even when you see some people’s cheekbones and/or chest area you run away, terrified, hysterically howling like a wolf that just discovered Little Red Hood hopped into its woods?

Try our “PlastyVision 3000”!

PlastyVision 3000 is a wearable jacket-like device with robotic hands that slap you in the face every time you look, touch, drink, eat and breathe in any kind of plastics.

PlastyVision 3000 (by @sciencemug)
PlastyVision 3000 (by @sciencemug)
[Plastic drum pic, by Beth Jnr, is a free pic (source: Unsplash); plastic cup pic, by Leeann Coller, is a Public Domain image
(source:; plastic basin pic, by almak, is a free to use image (source:; plastic bottle pic is by @sciencemug; all images are adapted by @sciencemug;

We guarantee you that, in less than half an hour, you are getting over your phobia, and you're also buying a micro plastic beads enriched soothing balm for your red swollen face! 

PlastyVision 3000” is now available also as a belt-like wearable device with robotic boots (the soothing balm is not included). 


Sooo, dear reader, the fifth and final step of Dr. Ragusa and colleagues study is to analyze the collected placenta’s samples to see if they contain microplastics.

To do that, our resourceful Italian Brains use a Raman XploRA Nano Microspectrometer, which is an instrument able to perform, precisely, Raman microspectroscopy.

Now, dear reader, Raman microspectroscopy is not an invasive diagnostic test preformed somehow using a misspelled traditional Japanese dish, nope buddy, it is, indeed, a form of spectroscopy.

Aaaand what’s spectroscopy?

Weell, pal, let’s find it out patiently proceeding by degrees, ok? Ok!

So, before going to the spectroscopy per se, we first have to refresh a bit the concept of electromagnetic radiation. Eectromagnetic radiation is “energy [...] transmitted at the speed of light through [...] electric and magnetic fields” (see). Basically it’s “an electric and magnetic disturbance traveling through space [as fast as Superman flying away from DC-movies screenwriters, producers and directors, that is at about 3x105 km/sec (186x103 mi/s)]. Besides, the electromagnetic radiation “travels in a waveform” (see). So, in other words, “the electromagnetic waves have crests and troughs similar to those of ocean waves [with the] distance between crests [being] the wavelength [and the] number of crests that pass a given point within one second [being the wave’s] frequency” (see) (and, of course, the shorter the wavelength, the higher the frequency, and vice versa).

Moreover, the electromagnetic radiationcontains neither mass nor charge but travels in packets of radiant energy called photons, or quanta” (see). Each “photon contains a certain amount of energy [and the] different types of [electromagnetic] radiation are defined by the the amount of energy found in the photons” (see).

Aaand, dear reader, in case you're wondering, here for you are the different types of electromagnetic radiation, from the less energetic/low frequency/long wavelenght one to the more energetic/high frequency/short wavelenght one: radio waves, microwaves, infrared-light, visible-light, ultraviolet-light, X-rays and, finally, gamma rays. Ok? Oook!

Now let’s go to the actual spectroscopy thing.

Spectroscopy is the study of electromagnetic radiation and its production from, or its interaction with, matter” (see).

The above mentioned Raman spectroscopy, that is around since more than sixty years, belongs to one of the three main groups among which spectroscopy can be divided into: the vibrational one (the other two being electronic spectroscopy, and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy) (see).

Ok, so, vibrational spectroscopy exploits the vibration of nuclei that forms the molecules. Within “any molecules [indeed] the atoms vibrate with a few [...] sharply defined frequency [which is proper to] that molecule. When a sample is radiated to a beam of incident [electromagnetic] radiation, it absorbs energy at frequencies characteristic to that of the frequency of the vibration of chemical bonds present in the molecules” (see).

Now, dear reader, a horse, a sandwich and a gamma ray burst enter a bar and order a banana split… Ooooh, you’re still listening then! Ok, ok, cool, just checking...

So, as just mentioned above, Raman spectroscopy is a kind of vibrational spectroscopy. Moreover, it uses the peculiar characteristics of scattered light.

When a beam of light (in the Raman spectroscopy case that of a laser, which is a source of electromagnetic radiation that is concentrated enough to do the job), smashes into something, well, some of the incoming light ends up scattered. 

Darth Vader & the spectroscopy
Darth Vader & the spectroscopy (by @sciencemug)
[Darth Vader pic, by María Ten, is a free pic (source: Unsplash); adapted by @sciencemug]

Almost all scattered light stays the same, meaning it retains the same wavelength and frequency, and therefore energy. A tiny little fraction of the scattered light, though, gets scattered with a different wavelength, and it is calledRaman radiation”, and the effect “Raman scattering” (see).

And they are called like this after the 1930 Nobel Prize laureate Indian physicist Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman. Sir Raman, indeed, in 1922 finds out something: when atoms and photons interact, the very most of the atoms, after retaining the photons energy for a ridiculously small amount of time (one thousand billionths of a second (10-12 sec)), well they let the photons go unchanged (i.e. with the same energy). Good old smarty smart Sir Raman, though, discovers that about 1 atom out of a million releases just a part of the incoming photon energy, while keeping for itself some of this energy instead (see).

Aaaaand guess what, dear reader, this retained energy is “characteristic of the molecule or atom” (see) retaining it.

So, dear reader, let’s recap what Raman spectroscopy is about: a laser hits a sample, this event produces scattered light. Some of this light is the Raman radiation. This radiation has a different wavelength (and therefore frequency) then before hitting the sample, thus it has a different amount of energy, and this difference depends of the very kind of atoms and molecules the hit sample is made of.

So, in the end, “the difference in frequencies between the original light and the various Raman radiations emitted from the sample” (see) is what gets out the Raman thing in the form of a graphic output and is analyzed, and eventually provides the desired data about the various types of atoms and molecules that make up the sample.

Now, the Italian Brains use a variant of the Raman spectroscopy, they use indeed the Raman microspectroscopy where, instead of employing a standard Raman spectrometer, they use a Raman microspectrometer. Aaand this instrument is what you get when you integrate a Raman spectrometer with an optical microscope, so that the lurking nosy science people be able to get Raman radiation signals from tiny microscopic samples, or from microscopic parts of bigger samples.

And what’s good ‘bout this, you asking dear reader?

Well, big ups are that you need less stuff for the analysis, and that some effects can be spotted big times on very delimited areas.

Oooook buddy, so, let’s sum up: a bunch of willful Italian researchers enroll healthy pregnant women and, when such women give smooth births, these researchers, who follow a strict plastic-free protocol (designed by themselves), collect the newly moms’ placentas. Once the scientists from the boot shaped country in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea have the placentas, they collect small samples from them and analyze these specimens looking for pieces of plastics smaller than 5 millimeters. And they do it with a cool instrument which works with a laser and on the basis of physics stuff discovered by some early XXth century genius dude from India.

Aaaaaand what do the Italian Brains eventually find out?

Do they find no plastics at all, but instead a small QR code with the secret manual to assemble the best selling IKEA crib without risking a stroke or to suffer of a nervous break-down followed by the burning in shrinks and psychiatric drugs of all the money you put together for the newborn “from diapers to braces to 5 years university tuition passing through the almost inevitable ‘the most expensive sport equipment and/or music instrument and/or <<I want a pony>> phase’ fund”?

Oooor do the ITBs actually find some plastics stuck deep down into the mothers’ bellies’ cores, at the very mom-to-be || baby-in-the-making interfaces?

Eeehh hehe, the answer, dear reader, will be in the next post/podcast episode!

Oh, right, I’ve already told you what the researchers find at the beginning of this post/episode… Oooops! Hehe! So much for the suspense…

Anyway, reader, you'll find the intriguing details of the Italian Brains discovery and much more about plastic in the next part of this post/episode!

So pal, that’s all for now. Take care, and if you spare some time and feel like doing it, please subscribe and/or rate this podcast, and/or leave a comment on the blog, and/or take a tour on my stuffngo (sNg) e-shop on so you can see if there’s something you like, aaand/or make a donation clicking on the Donate” button on this dumb blog’s home page!



The article this post/episode is about (P) 

P- Ragusa, A., Svelato, A., Santacroce, C., Catalano, P., Notarstefano, V., Carnevali, O., Papa, F., Rongioletti, M.C.A., Baiocco, F., Draghi, S., et al. (2021). Plasticenta: First evidence of microplastics in human placenta. Environment International 146, 106274.
1-Hartmann, N.B., Hüffer, T., Thompson, R.C., Hassellöv, M., Verschoor, A., Daugaard, A.E., Rist, S., Karlsson, T., Brennholt, N., Cole, M., et al. (2019). Are We Speaking the Same Language? Recommendations for a Definition and Categorization Framework for Plastic Debris. Environ. Sci. Technol. 53, 1039–1047.

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