Evidence for the presence of air pollution nanoparticles in placental tissue cells

Norrice M. Liu*, Lisa Miyashita, Barbara A. Maher, Graham McPhail, Carolyn J.P. Jones, Benjamin Barratt, Shakila Thangaratinam, Vassil Karloukovski, Imad A. Ahmed, Zabeada Aslam, Jonathan Grigg

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

76 Citations (Scopus)


Inhaled particulate matter (PM) from combustion- and friction-sourced air pollution adversely affects organs distant from the lung. A putative mechanism for the remote effect of inhaled PM is that ultrafine, nano-sized fraction (<100 nm) translocates across the air-tissue barrier, directly interacting with phagocytic tissue cells. Although PM is reported in other tissues, whether it is phagocytosed by non-respiratory tissue resident cells is unclear. Using the placenta as an accessible organ for phagocytic cells, we sought to seek evidence for air pollution-derived PM in tissue resident phagocytes. Macrophage-enriched placental cells (MEPCs) were isolated, and examined by light and electron microscopy. MEPC carbon was assessed by image analysis (mean μm2/1000 cells); particle composition and numbers were investigated using magnetic analyses and energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy. MEPCs phagocytic capacity was assessed by culture with diesel exhaust PM in vitro. Fifteen placentas were analysed. Black inclusions morphologically compatible with inhaled PM were identified within MEPCs from all samples (mean ± SEM carbon loading, 1000 MEPCs/participant of 0.004 ± 0.001 μm2). High resolution scanning/transmission electron microscopy revealed abundant nano-sized particle aggregates within MEPCs. MEPC PM was predominantly carbonaceous but also co-associated with a range of trace metals, indicative of high temperature (i.e. exogenous) generation. MEPCs contained readily-measurable amounts of iron-rich, ferrimagnetic particles, in concentrations/particle number concentrations ranging, respectively, from 8 to 50 ng/g and 10 to 60.107 magnetic particles/g (wet wt) MEPCs. Extracted MEPCs (n = 20/ placenta) were phagocytic for PM since all cells showed increased carbon area after culture with diesel PM in vitro (mean ± SEM increase 7.55 ± 1.26 μm2 carbon PM). These findings demonstrate that inhaled, metal-bearing, air pollution-derived PM can not only translocate to distant organs, but is taken up by tissue resident phagocytes in vivo. The human placenta, and hence probably the fetus, thus appears to be a target for such particles.

Original languageEnglish
Article number142235
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 10 Jan 2021


  • Air pollution, translocation of particulate matter
  • Carbonaceous and metal-bearing PM
  • Magnetite, macrophage
  • Nanoparticles
  • Phagocytosis
  • Placenta


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