Nanoparticles Mimic Asbestos in Danger to Humans
These posts, made of carbon nanotubes, can trap cancer cells and other tiny objects as they flow through the device. Each post is 30 microns in diameter.
CREDIT: Brian Wardle
Researchers have long worried that carbon nanotubes, small molecules used in a range of futuristic technologies, could pose a health risk to humans who inhale the microscopic fibers. However, no scientists could pinpoint precisely how or why carbon nanotubes might cause problems.
According to a new study conducted by researchers at Brown University, nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes can fool our cells into thinking they are big enough to ingest, leading to some disastrous results. This is the same thing that makes asbestos dangerous, a process lead researcher Huajian Gao compared to eating a lollipop that's bigger than your own body it would get stuck.
Though you might not be eating your computer chips anytime soon, Gao said there are several ways that human beings can ingest these carbon nanotubes, including simple inhalation.
"They're so small you can easily fly them in dust," Gao told InnovationNewsDaily. "If they're dangerous, then they have multiple ways of invading bodies."
Waste disposal is also an issue. If we dump carbon nanotubes in the ocean, they can be eaten by fish who might then wind up on our dinner plates.
This study also posits some serious questions regarding the safety and viability of nanomaterial-designed medicine. In recent years, scientists have found a great deal of potential in carbon nanotubes as transportation devices for moving drugs to specific cells or locations in the human body. If nanotubes are harmful to our cells, this would be impossible.
Still, Gao said it's too soon to dismiss carbon nanotubes and nanomaterials entirely, calling them "a double-edged sword" and stressing the need for scientists to do more research before saying anything definitive about the danger of nanotubes. Gao said he continues to remain optimistic about the future applications of nanomaterials despite this discovery.
"Once we understand it we can avoid the harmful effects while making full utility of the beneficial effects," Gao said.
So what can we do to avoid exposure to nanotubes that are currently used in computer chips and other electronic devices? Gao said there's nothing we can do for now.
"Lots of work needs to be done before we warn people about toxicity," he said.