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The Washington Post reported in late May, 2008 that new microscopic nanotubes that are being made for a wide variety of consumer products can cause the same kind of damage in the body as asbestos, and its deadly cancer of the lung lining called mesothelioma. These findings were made by well respected British researchers in a recent study of mice and the study is sounding alarms among workplace experts. Nanotubes are increasingly being used in electronic equipment, and sporting goods equipment and other products. The study used established methods to see if specific types of nanotubes have the potential to cause mesothelioma — a cancer of the lung lining that can take 30-40 years to appear following exposure. The results indicated that long, thin multi-walled carbon nanotubes that look like asbestos fibers, act like asbestos fibers and apparently may trigger a cellular reaction that over a period of years can cause mesothelioma, a fatal form of asbestos caused cancer of the lung lining, according to the researchers that handled the study at the University of Edinburg Center for inflammation research. Anthony Seaton of the Institute of Occupational medicine in Edinburgh, Scotland, contributed to the research which was published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. The study’s preliminary evidence of cancer is strong enough to require further tests for nanotube factory workers, according to experts. Nanotubes conduct electricity easily and therefore are in new types of material being used inside computers. Leading forecasting firms say sales of all nanotubes/nanotechnology could reach $2 billion annually within the next four to seven years, according to an article in the U.S. publication Chemical & Engineering News.

Anthony Seaton, MD, the co-author on the paper and a professor emeritus at the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom, stated, “The toll of asbestos-related cancer, first noticed in the 1950s and 1960s, is likely to continue for several more decades even though usage reduced rapidly some 25 years ago. While there are reasons to suppose that nanotubes can be used safely, this will depend on appropriate steps being taken to prevent them from being inhaled in the places they are manufactured, used and ultimately disposed of. Such steps should be based on research into exposure and risk prevention, leading to regulation of their use. Following this study, the results of which were foreseen by the Royal Society in the U.K. in 2004, we can no longer delay investing in such research.”

The study in Edinburg was led by Ken Donaldson. Donaldson tracked short-term effects of putting carbon nanotube’s and asbestos fibers into the mesothelium, which is the tissue surrounding the lung and other organs. Longer fiber nanotubes were noted to cause granulomas, early cellular changes that can lead to cancers. Donaldson was quoted as saying: “The results were clear… Long, thin carbon nanotubes showed the same effects as long, thin asbestos fibers….Short or curly carbon nanotubes did not behave like asbestos, and by knowing the possible dangers of long, thin carbon nanotubes, we can work to control them. It’s a good news story, not a bad one. It shows that carbon nanotubes and their products could be made to be safe.” Carbon nanotubes are atom-thick sheets of graphite formed into cylinders. They may be formed from a single layer of graphite or they may consist of multiple concentric layers of graphite, resulting in multi-walled carbon nanotubes.

My take on this:

New technologies with fibers that are just as tiny in size as asbestos fibers must be investigated carefully. After all, the health warnings relating to asbestos dangers were known for decades by asbestos manufacturers who fraudulently concealed the dangers, before broader industry paid attention-after all, asbestos had good insulating properties, and as long as the truth (fatal cancers, permanent lung diseases), was kept secret, asbestos continued to be sold and used for decades and we all are paying tremendous societal costs. If we force industry to make safety changes at the outset, we may be able to avoid another public health disaster.

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