Are there big problems with the very small?

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.

More like this

Shit Revere, this stuff sounds like it would make a damned good aerosol dropped weapon.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 22 May 2008 #permalink

I hope that the regulation of nanotubes and other nanomaterials can be done on a rational and case by case basis and not via a blanket ban (as was done for asbestos).

There are some uses for nanotubes that are expected that only nanotubes will be able to supply, and no, something that works as an additive to cosmetics is not one of them.

I went to school with a guy who lived in Manville NJ, and had worked summers at the Johns Manville plant. He told stories he had heard from the old timers of how when making asbestos pipe insulation the dust would be so thick that you couldn't see across the room, and they had to shut the production line down every shift because the accumulated dust got knee deep.

I remember reading about a process for melting asbestos and turning it into a ceramic product. It took a while for them to get an exemption because they were making a "product" using "asbestos" as a "raw material". That the final product had zero actual "asbestos" in it was irrelevant.

I appreciate that the moneyed interests wouldn't adopt rational asbestos controls and then fought rational regulation. I hope we don't go down that road again, but it appears that we are.

There are many substitutes for asbestos. They are just somewhat more expensive. There may not be substitutes for nanotubes at any price. In virtually all current uses of nanotubes there are many substitutes. In my opinion, the main reason nanotubes are being used in consumer items is purely for marketing hype.

Randy: Since I know you are only half kidding I'll give you only a half kidding answer. It's not much of a weapon if you have to wait 40 years for the enemy to die of a terrible cancer.

Forward thinking and good business design to avoid future costs to companies and investors:

Proactively designing nanomaterials to enhance performance and minimise hazard
Harper SL, Dahl JA, Maddux BLS, et al.
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF NANOTECHNOLOGY Volume: 5 Issue: 1 Pages: 124-142 Published: 2008

Abstract: The innovative field of nanotechnology is most likely to benefit society and gain acceptance if environmental and human health considerations are investigated systematically, and those results are used to optimise safety as well as performance. Since nanotechnology fundamentally allows manipulation of matter at the atomic level, toxic interactions could potentially be eliminated by creative design once our knowledge of how nanomaterials interact with biological systems is sufficient. Our approach to the development of benign nanoparticles begins with the synthesis of precisely engineered, high-purity nanoparticle libraries using the principles of green chemistry. Next, evaluations for biocompatibility are performed using a rapid in vivo system (embryonic zebrafish) to assess the biological activity and toxic potential of nanomaterials at multiple levels of biological organisation (i.e., molecular, cellular, systems, organismal). Our iterative testing and redesign strategy utilises information gained from the biological studies to inform the nanomaterial design process until benign products and processes are identified. To make this information more generally available, a knowledgebase of Nanomaterial-Biological Interactions (NBI) is being developed that will offer industry, academia and regulatory agencies a mechanism to rationally inquire for unbiased interpretation of nanomaterial exposure effects in biological systems. Timely evaluation and dissemination of information on nanomaterial-biological interactions will provide much needed data, improve public trust of the nanotechnology industry, and provide nanomaterial designers in academia and industry with information to direct the development of safer nanomaterials and resulting technologies.

By phytosleuth (not verified) on 22 May 2008 #permalink

I've always been curious about how asbestosis differs from silicosis or byssinosis or pneumoconiosis. The impression I have gotten (and IANAMD) is that the scarring is broadly similar between them and due to the lung loading with debris that cannot be cleared.

And while we're on the topic of mineral fiber related diseases, are the lung cancers and mesotheliomas caused by erionite similar to those associated with asbestiform amphiboles and serpentines?

We have the warning. We started some planning. Now do we have support from funding agencies and the government?

Sustainability as an emerging design criterion in nanoparticle synthesis and applications
Murphy CJ. Journal of Materials Chemistry 2008; 18(19):2173-2176

Abstract: The precepts of green chemistry have been spreading since the mid-1990s, concomitant with advances in nanomaterial synthesis. Recently these two communities have begun to significantly converge. Nanomaterial synthesis groups are developing greener, more sustainable production methods, while nanoparticle application groups are exploring sustainable energy sources and environmental remediation as end goals.

By phytosleuth (not verified) on 22 May 2008 #permalink

To NJ:

Yes, the mesotheliomas caused by erionite are indistinguishable from those caused by asbestos.

NJ: Song is correct on erionite. There has been some controversy whether the Turkish mesotheliomas from erionite might not be from co-present asbestiform fibers instead (I haven't followed to see if this has been resolved).

Pneumoconiosis is the general name for a dust disease and therefore includes the others. Asbestosis is an interstitial fibrosis, that is, it is a diffuse scarring in the spaces between the alveoli and the bronchi. If you think of the lung as an upside down tree with the bronchioles the branches and twigs and the alveoli (gas exchange units) the leaves, the interstial area is the area between one branch and its leaves and another branch and its leaves. Silicosis is a nodular fibrosis. It looks very different under the microscope and on an x-ray, so it is pathologically different. Byssinosis (brown lung) is from endotoxin in the cotton fibers and presents as emphysema. It isn't a scarring that is causing the respiratory failure.

The exact mechanism of fibrosis is still being worked out. It isn't just that the fibers overload the lung but that when a macrophage tries to engulf an asbestos fiber it dies and dumps all its toxic contents into the area. The fiber than can kill another macrophage, etc.

First of all, what I find most frustrating is the lack of knowledge available to consumers about what is and isn't in the products I buy. This critique obviously goes way beyond nanotubes. The point is if we live in a capitalistic society where the free market is held up as the best regulator available, as so many "laissez faire" supporters propose, the consumer should be given the information needed to make an informed decision. Some people make think it's going overboard to decide to not buy any products containing nanotubes, for example, but I should be able to have the information the make that decision.

Second, it should be noted that asbestos, to date, has never been successfully banned from the U.S. In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) attempted to ban asbestos under the Toxic Substances Control Act. However, the asbestos industry filed a lawsuit against the EPA, and in 1991, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the regulation. The last asbestos mine in the United States closed in 2002, but asbestos is still imported from Canada. Although U.S. consumption of asbestos products has decreased over the years, it is still used in some products today, such as brake pads.

Considering the luck we've had with asbestos so far, I'm not holding high hopes for nanotubes regulation....

Don't be too sure that they are not using it as a weapon.

I doubt that the inhalation toxicity has been tested.

This weapon probably uses conventional graphite fibers because nanotubes are too expensive (but would work better because they have higher electrical conductivity). The coating is probably low work function material to enhance electrical breakdown, alkali metal perhaps. It wouldn't take very much, a few hundred ppm would be plenty. Perhaps a silane coating so they disperse better.

It isn't clear to me if the fibers will ever degrade. I don't think there are any enzymes that can attack an unbroken graphite surface. Most natural graphite is present as flakes or polycrystalline pieces. They exfoliate into single sheet layers which are reactive at the edges. Fibers don't have edges except at the ends, and some nanotubes have ends that are capped.

The only biological degradation mechanism I can imagine would be hydroxyl radical formation which might attack graphite. It might not.

As someone who got a deep breath full of decaying pipe insulation (type unknown) while moving my now wife/then girlfriend out of her 60's era condo in Chicago this issue always gives me the willies. For future reference never tip a couch up on its end to try and squeeze through a tight stairwell without looking up first.

Do these nano materials eventually exact their toll after a single exposure or is it a cumulative sort of thing? Would regular ct-scans be prudent for people with possible/limited exposure?

What is it going to take for people to wake up. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and flies or floats like a duck, it's a frigging duck.

The neo-malthusian psychopaths who rule us, created the Euegenics movement now hiding within organizations like USAID, WWF, UNESCO, etc. consider you and me to be the enemy. Our presence on their goddess, Mother Earth bothers them no end. We are their terrorists, turning the planet into a giant feed lot. We are their enemy that has to be reduced. We are overpopulated they say. If the ET's needed a feeding lot on the intergalactic highway pasing Earth, they might open up a McDonalds that serves human burgers for them, then we might be useful to them.

They give us wars, famine, unsafe food and drugs, perhaps unsafe vaccines or vaccines that reduce fertility, and chemicals like flouride in water.

Our population growth from those and the families who existed in 1970 has been negative. The growth has been entirely immigration related, new immigrants (legal and illegal) and their children born in the USA.

Globally, genocide is occurring in various countries of Africa and the Middle east (Palestinians, Iraq, etc). We may even have weather and geophysical weapons that can create weather events and earthquakes and volcanos (google Owning the Weather 2025 by the Airforce published in 1995, HAARP, etc). Kissingers NSSM 200 was about population reduction using food as a weapon. PNAC suggested in their report that genome specific biological weapons could be a useful political tool. Genetically modified food is not tested for chronic toxicity and under conditions that ensure problems are not found, and FDA accepts them and rules that GM food, modified with genes from bacteria do not need additional regulations as they are GRAS.

Corn is corn they say, except the spermicidal corn that was developed. And the GM seeds are allowed to be patented, despite the fact they say Corn is Corn.

It's all out there in plain site, because people refuse to believe it, and MSM is controlled.

Population reduction is the goal, 40 years isn't so long to wait for them. Nanotech is just one more tool, and it might be more effective than you think, and all signs point to them being in a hurry.


Max: We know nothing about the long term effects of nanotubules. There is no evidence that periodic CAT scans would be beneficial and the entail radiation exposure.

Revere and Song:

Thanks for the info. I had always seen pneumoconiosis used as the term for black lung in coal miners, so I had (obviously incorrectly) inferred that it was the specific term for the coal dust disease rather than the general term. I am guessing that your comment (Revere) about the macrophage dying when it tries to engulf the fiber is based in part on that amazing electron micrograph...

I recall reading some speculation that one way the mineral fibers might generate cancers is due to dangling metal bonds on the surfaces. Obviously, a riebeckite fiber will have plenty of reactive iron available for a long time, and chrysotile will have magnesium sticking out until the fiber dissolves away. But also obviously this idea is less viable if pure carbon tubes have similar effects.

Oh, and General Ripp, er, uh, pft? It's fluoride, not flouride.

There are lots of things inside cells that have to move around. When DNA is replicated, the two stands of the helix are pulled apart and copied. Even something completely inert is going to prevent that from happening. A cell is not going to be able to divide properly if it is impaled by an inert fiber. There is absolutely no reason to suppose that a high strength, high aspect fiber that can impale a cell isn't going to adversely affect how it functions and especially how it divides.

As I see it, there is no excuse for not treating nanotubes as potentially extremely injurious. They may not be "toxic" in a chemical sense because they are not "soluble" and are chemically inert. That does not make them benign.

I've been following the nanotube story from one public health site to another. There's not just one preliminary study, there are enough so there are reviews of reviews published.

Here's a quote from one abstract: "Comparative toxicity studies in which mice were given equal weights of test materials showed that SWCNTs were more toxic than quartz, which is considered a serious occupational health hazard if it is chronically inhaled; ultrafine carbon black was shown to produce minimal lung responses."

Carbon black, however, is an IARC 2B carcinogen with based on sufficient evidence in people.

Hazard identification for carbon nanotubes was long over before the mesothelioma study. The next neglected tasks are exposure response assessment and exposure assessment.

By Frank Mirer (not verified) on 23 May 2008 #permalink


I'm not a doctor, but I will be getting my 30 year pin from the Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers of America this year.

I'd forget about your one exposure in the hallway. Many of my brother members have been murdered slowly (the manufacturers KNEW the were killing us) by asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. Only a few of their wives have died from it, because they were washing their hubby's work clothes and by sharing the same auto, we beleive. Many male children of insulators followed their fathers footsteps and also became insulators, so their death rate from lung related disease is a toss up. I have never heard of a daughter of a member dying from asbestosis, nor any male children of insulators who would worked "on permit" during the Summer between semesters of college who then went on to other careers.

Granted not very scientific, but hopefully reassuring.

Dr Irving Silikoff, of . . . A hospital in NYC. . . Can't remember name. . . was a pioneer in following our union's exposure and health.


gilmore: Dr. Irving Selikoff, Mt. Sinai Hospital in NYC. I had the pleasure and privilege of knowing Dr. Selikoff. He was perhaps the most important figure inin promoting warning of asbestos hazards. A remarkable man.

Thanks Gillmore. My possible single exposure is trivial in comparison to all those who have and continue to suffer at the hands of asbestos.

Thanks to Revere for pointing out that we may be needlessly sleepwalking towards another problem if we aren't careful.

I guess I shouldn't be too surprised, since this is a topic that impacts us so much, but "Hey, Gilmore, how ya doon?" I'm a retiree from local 73 Phoenix, Az. I don't know if you're just following Meso links, or a lurker here like me, but I hope you and yours and doing well.

As for the rest of youse guys, I'm not one to be shocked by much anymore, but this topic made my hair stand up. I certainly hope that research/safety concerns won't be tamped down for profits.

Thank you Revere's, for the follow up info on Dr Selikoff. He is looked upon as a remarkable man by all members of the Asbestos Workers Union. We provided some financial assistance for his research and also many of us also had our X-ray's read by him. Unfortunately, there still is no cure, but there is so much more known because of Dr Selikoff.

I have been a "regular" reader of this fine column for some time. As Dr Selikoff created ripples in the ocean with asbestos hazards, The Revere's are blazing the trail of Public Health awareness. I learned of them thru my interest in H5N1, an avian flu virus the is quite deadly and some fear may become the pandemic flu.

Hope you came back for my response AND stay for the great info. I live in AZ and just worked with a bunch of Local 73 guys during a genny change out at Diablo Canyon in Local 5. Primo men. My card is out of Local 17, so I was also on a traveler.

Do you still go to union meetings occasionally??? Maybe I'll see you at a 73 meeting. . . or e-mail me some time and we can swap pipecoverer stories.

gilmoreaz at gmail . com