Are carbon nanotubes the next asbestos? A new report in Occupational Medicine and Health Affairs suggests that the dangers of working with these tiny particles can include lung cancer and deadly malignant pleural mesothelioma – the same diseases caused by exposure to asbestos.
Carbon nanotubes are tubular cylinders of carbon atoms. These tiny manmade particles have been found to have some extraordinary properties – including strength, elasticity and conductivity – that are useful in making products ranging from baseball bats to electronics and optical lenses. Like asbestos, carbon nanotubes are also resistant to corrosion. As a result, they’re being used with increasing frequency, which means that more workers in these fields are likely to be exposed to them.
In a recent report, researchers from the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at West Virginia University warn that exposure to carbon nanotubes without sufficient training and protection could result in a variety of health problems for workers, including deadly mesothelioma.
“Short-term and sub-chronic exposure studies in rodents have shown consistent adverse health effects such as pulmonary inflammation, granulomas, fibrosis, genotoxicity and mesothelioma after inhalation or instillation of several types of CNTs,” writes pharmaceutical research student and co-author of the study, Amruta Manke. The report says that certain properties of CNTs, including their particle size which can range from 1 to 50 nanometers, make them especially toxic to the lungs.
Although the information on CNTs in the workplace is still scanty, there is evidence that CNTs can become airborne and be inhaled, just like asbestos, when they are being synthesized or processed. To protect workers from mesothelioma and other serious health problems, the report advises that the same kind of protections be put in place for carbon nanotube workers as were implemented in the 1960s for asbestos workers.
After asbestos was linked to mesothelioma, the government implemented safe handling regulations including personal protective gear, worker training, workplace inspections, and health surveillance programs. Even with these regulations in place, asbestos remains the primary cause of mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer that occurs on the membranes surrounding internal organs.
Manke, A et al, “Potential Occupational Risks Associated with Pulmonary Toxicity of Carbon Nanotubes”, Occupational Medicine and Health Affairs, 2014