Call to prevent carbon nanotubes from becoming the 'asbestos' of nanotechnology

The safe commercialization of nanotech will require special attention to the manufacture and disposal of materials using carbon nanotubes. Long multiwalled carbon nanotubes (MWNT) share with asbestos fibers the property of producing inflammation and lesions when introduced into the abdominal cavity of mice. These results suggest that exposure to long carbon nanotube fibers might be as dangerous as exposure to asbestos. The authors of the study (abstract) call for “further research and great caution before introducing such products into the market if long-term harm is to be avoided.” The release of this research was covered by both BBC News and The New York Times. Excerpts from “‘Asbestos warning’ on nanotubes“, by Jonathan Fildes:

Carbon nanotubes, the poster child of the burgeoning nanotechnology industry, could trigger diseases similar to those caused by asbestos, a study suggests.

Specific lengths of the tiny fibres were found to cause “asbestos-like” inflammation and lesions in mice.

Use of asbestos trigged a pandemic of lung disease in the 20th Century.

There are high hopes for the tiny carbon molecules, which have remarkable properties that could be used for advanced electronics and materials.

“As a society, we cannot afford not to exploit this incredible material but neither can we afford to get it wrong — as we did with asbestos,” said Dr Andrew Maynard of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, US.

…However, of the known goods [that use carbon nanotubes] there was “little risk” of exposure as the nanotubes are encased inside, the researchers said. But, they warned, there was a potential risk for workers exposed to the tubes during manufacturing and disposal.

… [Dr Maynard said,] “I think the bottom line here is that we still have a very clear chance of making a difference with this technology — of getting it right — if we take action now.”

Excerpts from “In study, researchers find nanotubes may pose health risks similar to asbestos” by Kenneth Chang:

Nanotubes, one of the wonder materials of the new age of nanotechnology, may carry a health risk similar to that of asbestos, a wonder material of an earlier age that turned into a scourge after decades of use when its fibers were found to cause lung disease, researchers said Tuesday.

This time, the warning comes long before anyone has fallen ill, and experts say the findings call for caution, not alarm, in handling nanotubes, which are tiny, superstrong carbon fibers.

“In a sense, we’re forewarned and forearmed now with respect to nanotubes,” said Anthony Seaton, a professor of environmental and occupational medicine at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

Vicki Colvin, a professor of chemistry at Rice University in Houston, who was not involved with the research, said that she saw no need to restrict the use of nanotubes in products, but that their use should be better labeled.

“I’m not alarmed,” Professor Colvin said, “but it seems we should have better information about where it is and how it’s being used.”


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