Nanotubes get nasty

Researchers at Edinburgh University are warning of potential health dangers to workers handling carbon nanotubes.

The researchers found that when the carbon nanotube fibres were short they appeared harmless. However, the body’s scavenger cells were unable to deal with longer fibres, which provoked inflammation and disease in sensitive tissue surrounding organs in the body including the lungs.

The reaction was similar to that of asbestos, where longer fibres are also more harmful and can cause mesothelioma – a cancer in the tissue that lines the lung.

While there would seem to be little risk to consumers using products containing nanotubes, toxicologists are concerned that there might be a health risk to workers involved in the manufacture of carbon nanotubes and to those who make products containing them.

The study, published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, follows concerns that carbon nanotubes could pose a health threat due to their similarity in shape to asbestos – with long needle-like fibres.

The research was carried out in collaboration with the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, the Institute of Occupational Medicine and Napier University in Edinburgh and the University of Manchester.

The authors urge that more research is needed to investigate the potential risks to health during the manufacture of carbon nanotubes. This would include looking at how long the fibres are, how much is in the air, the likelihood of them being breathed in and the determination of safe exposure levels.