Long, thin multi-walled carbon nanotubes that look like asbestos fibers may pose the same inhalation hazards as asbestos, according to new research published in Nature Nanotechnology in May. The findings conclude that cancer of the lung lining, mesothelioma, a disease associated with asbestos, can result from exposure to specific types of nanotubes. Sales of all nanotubes could reach $2 billion annually within the next few years, according to Chemical & Engineering News, so these results raise new concerns about those on the front lines of the nanotube revolution.
“Short or curly carbon nanotubes did not behave like asbestos,” says Professor Kenneth Donaldson at the University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom, who emphasizes the need for more research. “We still don’t know whether carbon nanotubes will become airborne and be inhaled.”
The U.S. Congress is preparing to reauthorize the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which has provided an estimated $1.5 billion in research on carbon nanotubes. Only 5 percent of those funds are spent on health and safety research.
Most manufacturers using nanotubes in proprietary materials and products already specify gloves, masks and other protective wear for employees; if not, they should, until more is known. “We’ve got to have the right research and really fast,” says Andrew Maynard of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, Washington, D.C. “We cannot afford not to exploit this incredible material, but neither can we afford to get it wrong—as we did with asbestos.” To read the study, see the Nature Nanotechnology Web site at www.nature.com/nnano.