There are calls to regulate the placenta encapsulation industry in Australia after a newborn baby in the United States contracted a deadly blood infection linked to its mother taking the pills last year.
The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States issued a warning to parents after the infant contracted potentially fatal late-onset sepsis, caused by the bacteria Group B Streptococcus agalactiae.
That bacteria was found in placenta capsules consumed by the infant’s mother, and were therefore identified as a potential source of the infection.
Cindy Hobbs, a placenta encapsulation specialist, believes the case highlights the need for regulation.
“It is a biological hazard preparing placenta,” she told 7.30.
“You’ve got things like HIV and Hepatitis B and things that you need to, you know, be aware of, and have safety standards for, and procedures for dealing with.
“To make cookies to sell at a market you’re required by law to have your kitchen registered, but there’s nothing like that for placenta encapsulation, so it’s crazy in my eyes.”
Ms Hobbs first got into the practice when she had her own placenta encapsulated after the birth of her second child.
She said she experienced the proposed benefits like improved mood and increased breast milk production, but the pills also made her sick.
“I had a doula who encapsulated my placenta, and although I got the great benefits from it I did find after a day or two on the pills I was feeling quite nauseous,” she said.
“And it became apparent that I was actually quite possibly experiencing the side effects of food poisoning.”
That inspired Ms Hobbs to undergo training to be able to offer the service herself.
She now has a range of food handling and safety qualifications, but the same cannot be said for every operator.
Celebrity endorsements see placenta pill industry boom
There has been a boom in placenta encapsulation after a number of high profile celebrity endorsements, including from reality TV stars Kim and Kourtney Kardashian and actress January Jones.
The Placenta Encapsulation Association does not keep statistics but says it would be safe to say thousands of women consume their placentas in Australia each year.
It estimates there has been about a four-fold increase in the practice over the past five years.
Bryony McNeill, a reproductive biology expert from Deakin University, said the wide variety of preparation techniques and standards involved present real risks to new mothers.
“Within the placenta there is the potential for bacteria and viruses to be present and these could cause infection,” she said.
“It needs to be heated to a high temperature to actually eliminate any potentially infectious agents, but obviously if it’s not prepared appropriately then there is the potential for some quite serious infections.”
But Dr McNeill said that would also probably eliminate any potential benefits.
“Some of the proposed benefits come from bio-active compounds, so hormones and other factors, but a lot of these are very heat-sensitive,” she said.
She said there was also a potential risk from other toxic substances.
“There’s been one research paper looking at heavy metals in the placenta capsules and this showed that there were very low levels of what was measured in the study.
“But obviously that wasn’t a completely exhaustive study of what could be in the placenta, so potentially there are other harmful substances that we’re just not aware of.”
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) also recently issued a warning to expectant mothers to be aware of the potential risks associated with placenta consumption.
“Human placenta is a biological material and is capable of containing and transmitting infectious agents, including bacteria and viruses,” it said.
“In addition, preparation may inadvertently introduce infectious agents.”
The TGA advice also said there was no evidence to support the claims of health benefits associated with consuming human placenta.
‘I call them my super pills’
Maree Reus has just given birth to her second child and had her second placenta encapsulated.
She told 7.30 it was a no-brainer after her first experience.
“If I was having a down day or feeling a little bit hormonal, I would take a couple of extra pills and it would be like a great pick-me-up,” she said.
“I was calling them my super pills and I tried to make my husband have some. It was just amazing. They’re a real pick-me-up.”
The mother-of-two is not worried about the potential risks.
“I think the reality is the risk of the infection going through is so low,” she said.
“There’s only ever been one recorded incident that I’ve been able to find anyway, so that doesn’t really concern me at all.
“And the benefits that I got the first time around would far outweigh the tiny, tiny risk.”