The risks of nanoparticles for pregnant women and their unborn children

A new study conducted in Switzerland has revealed that nanoparticles pass into the placenta and can damage embryonic development, with serious consequences for the formation of the baby's blood vessels.

Science is continually striving to understand the potential risks of nanoparticles, tiny particles found in various everyday products and also generated during combustion processes. Unfortunately, much remains unknown, especially regarding their harmful effects on pregnant women and, more specifically, their babies.

A recent study by an interdisciplinary team at Empa (the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology) has shed light on the dangers these particles may pose to fetuses.

Nanoparticles and placental barrier

In the womb, the fetus should be in a protected and safe environment, thanks to the placenta which filters pathogens and foreign substances. However, Tina Bürki, the study’s coordinator, and her team discovered that some nanoparticles can cross this barrier, negatively impacting embryonic development.

Nanoparticles are present in many consumer products, from cosmetics to dietary supplements, and can also be inhaled from polluted air. The suspected pregnancy-related damage from these particles is already numerous, with consequences ranging from low birth weight to respiratory diseases and even autism.

Impact on fetal development

Using human placentas obtained after planned cesarean sections, researchers found that nanoparticles affect the production of chemical messengers crucial for fetal development. These messengers regulate the formation of blood vessels, and their alteration can lead to severe developmental disorders.

To visualize the nanoparticles’ effect, researchers used a laboratory model based on chicken eggs. Normally, blood vessels in the egg grow rapidly and densely to support embryonic development. However, in eggs treated with altered messengers from nanoparticle-contaminated placentas, the blood vessels were less dense and poorly organized.

“Nanoparticles apparently have an indirect effect on the unborn child by inhibiting blood vessel formation through messenger substances,” commented Dr. Bürki.

Ongoing research and implications

The Empa study is now progressing by analyzing the secretome, the set of messenger substances released by the placenta treated with nanoparticles. The communication between placenta and fetus, crucial for proper embryonic development, is compromised by these particles. While early results suggest that the development of the nervous system does not seem to be affected, other possible disorders remain to be clarified.

“The results of this study are fundamental for the risk assessment of nanomaterials,” emphasized Bürki.

Thomas Rduch from the Cantonal Hospital of St. Gallen added, “A healthy placenta is of utmost importance for the child’s development. For pregnant women, an accurate assessment of environmental pollution risk is essential.”

Common nanoparticles: titanium dioxide and silicon dioxide

Among the most commonly used nanoparticles are titanium dioxide, found in cosmetics, medicines, and many toothpastes, and silicon dioxide, used in paints and as a food additive (almost always present in supplements).

While the European Union banned the use of titanium dioxide in food in 2022 due to its potential carcinogenic effects, the presence of these nanoparticles in other products is still allowed. According to the study’s results, they continue to pose a threat, particularly to unborn children.

It is clear how important it is to further investigate the issue with additional research, followed by stricter regulations to protect future generations.

Source: EMPA

The article draws upon studies published and recommendations from international institutions and/or experts. We do not make claims in the medical-scientific field and report the facts as they are. Sources are indicated at the end of each article.
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