Uptake, Transport, and Toxicity of Pristine and Weathered Micro- and Nanoplastics in Human Placenta Cells

Environ Health Perspect. 2022 Sep;130(9):97006. doi: 10.1289/EHP10873. Epub 2022 Sep 21.


Background: The first evidence of micro- and nanoplastic (MNP) exposure in the human placenta is emerging. However, the toxicokinetics and toxicity of MNPs in the placenta, specifically environmentally relevant particles, remain unclear.

Objectives: We examined the transport, uptake, and toxicity of pristine and experimentally weathered MNPs in nonsyncytialized and syncytialized BeWo b30 choriocarcinoma cells.

Methods: We performed untargeted chemical characterization of pristine and weathered MNPs using liquid chromatography high-resolution mass spectrometry to evaluate compositional differences following particle weathering. We investigated cellular internalization of pristine and weathered polystyrene (PS; 0.05-10μm) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE; 0-80μm) particles using high-resolution confocal imaging and three-dimensional rendering. We investigated the influence of particle coating with human plasma on the cellular transport of PS particles using a transwell setup and examined the influence of acute MNP exposure on cell viability, damage to the plasma membrane, and expression of genes involved in steroidogenesis.

Results: Chemical characterization of MNPs showed a significantly higher number of unique features in pristine particles in comparison with weathered particles. Size-dependent placental uptake of pristine and weathered MNPs was observed in both placental cell types after 24 h exposure. Cellular transport was limited and size-dependent and was not influenced by particle coating with human plasma. None of the MNPs affected cell viability. Damage to the plasma membrane was observed only for 0.05μm PS particles in the nonsyncytialized cells at the highest concentration tested (100μg/mL). Modest down-regulation of hsd17b1 was observed in syncytialized cells exposed to pristine MNPs.

Discussion: Our results suggest that pristine and weathered MNPs are internalized and translocated in placental cells in vitro. Effects on gene expression observed upon pristine PS and HDPE particle exposure warrant further examination. More in-depth investigations are needed to better understand the potential health risks of MNP and chemicals associated with them under environmentally relevant exposure scenarios. https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP10873.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Survival
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Microplastics*
  • Placenta / metabolism
  • Polyethylene / metabolism
  • Polyethylene / pharmacology
  • Polystyrenes*
  • Pregnancy


  • Microplastics
  • Polystyrenes
  • Polyethylene