Over the years I’ve seen more than enough of the murderous destruction “the magic mineral, “asbestos, has caused in the lives of workers and their families. Exposure to asbestos causes a serious, often fatal, scarring of the lungs called asbestosis and also two different kinds of cancer of the respiratory tract: lung cancer and mesothelioma. Both cancers are usually fatal, but while lung cancer can be caused by other agents like cigarettes and various occupational chemicals, mesothelioma is mostly a result of exposure to asbestos. “Meso,” as it is often called, is a horrific disease. It commonly kills in less than a year and the terminal stages are extremely painful.
Many people think we only learned about the hazards of asbestos exposure when it was too late. Sadly, the warning flags about asbestosis were flying almost from the early years of industrial use of the the mineral fiber at the beginning of the 20th century. By 1935 the cancer connection was being mentioned and by the end of the 1940s the connection with meso was becoming clear. You don’t have to see more than one person die of asbestos exposure (and alas I’ve seen many) to have strong feelings that nothing like it ever happens again. But one wonders whether we’ve learned any lesson at all from the bitter dregs of the asbestos tragedy:
Microscopic, high-tech “nanotubes” that are being made for use in a wide variety of consumer products cause the same kind of damage in the body as asbestos does, according to a study in mice that is raising alarms among workplace safety experts and others.
Within days of being injected into mice, the nanotubes — which are increasingly used in electronic components, sporting goods and dozens of other products — triggered a kind of cellular reaction that over a period of years typically leads to mesothelioma, a fatal form of cancer, researchers said.
Only longer versions of the vanishingly small fibers have that toxic effect, the study found. And further experiments must be done to prove that the engineered motes can cause problems when inhaled, the way most people might be exposed to them.
But the preliminary evidence of cancer risk is strong enough to justify urgent follow-up tests and government guidance for nano factory workers, who are most likely to be exposed, experts said. Others called for labels to guide consumers or recyclers, who might encounter the material when incinerating or otherwise destroying discarded nano products. (Washington Post)
There is still much to be figured out here. It is not uncommon to induce granulomas or even outright mesotheliomas when placing foreign material in the pleural, peritoneal or pericardial cavities, all sacs lined by mesothelium. But this is definitely a health and safety Red Flag. It is clearly not a welcome suggestions for the industry or engineers and scientists working on what is obviously a promising new technology:
Vicki Colvin, a chemist at Rice University in Houston who works on nanomaterials, was a bit concerned when she first heard about the study. “It made me pensive because of the potential cause for alarm that people could have, seeing asbestos connected in some way to a nanomaterial,” she says.
Colvin says it’s important to remember that this is just one preliminary study showing that one particular nanomaterial had this effect. Since the experiment was on mice, it’s also unclear what it will mean for people. (NPR)
I agree it is just one preliminary study. But we ignore it at our peril. In 1943 a scientist at the National Cancer Institute induced pre-cancerous and cancerous material in mice by exposing them to asbestos fibers. He could not get further funding to follow-up on his research. Today the federal government is spending $1.5 billion to research, develop and promote nanotechnology — but less than one dollar in twenty to look at health, safety and environmental concerns. It’s as if to say, “Better not to know.”
And there is a great deal to know. The problem with nanotubules and other nanoparticles is not their make-up (although that may also be a problem for some materials), but their size and shape. The same issue arises for asbestos fibers whose make-up varies widely depending on where it is mined but whose effects seem related to its physical dimensions. Nanoparticles are of a size unlike any biological systems have evolved to handle. For that reason they likely have biological properties different than any known materials. It will take a concerted, systematic and well supported research program to figure out what nanotechnology is OK and what has to be handled in special ways — or not at all — in the workplace, the environment and consumer products. Good Luck:
“We’ve got to have the right research and really fast,” said Andrew Maynard of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies in Washington, a co-author of the new research report. “We’ve got to have a strategy in place. But no matter what the government says, if you look at it, there is not a clear vision of where they need to be or a plan of how to get there.”
“We need information about exposure to these materials in the workplace,” Donaldson said. Unfortunately, [Ken Donaldson of the MRC/University of Edinburgh Centre for Inflammation Research] added, scientists have not even agreed on what the best method is for measuring airborne levels of nanotube dust. (WaPo)
Meanwhile we also don’t know what the industry is making in terms of nanotech materials, what form they take in consumer products (of which there are an estimated 500 currently using nanotech, although very few incorporate nanotubules), or who is exposed in the workplace to how much of what, not to mention what it might or might not do to people.
That’s a lot not to know. More at The Pump Handle.