Researchers: Feds must fund study of nanotube cancer risks

Bill to boost research passes committee vote this week on way to a congressional debate

Researchers and analysts are calling on the US government to fund a study of the potential health risks of carbon nanotubes -- the building blocks of nanotechnology.

A study out of the University of Edinburgh that was released this week showed that some forms of the nanotubes can cause cancer much like asbestos does. The study shows that long, thin multi-walled carbon nanotubes, which look like asbestos fibers, actually behave like asbestos and can cause cancer of the lung lining.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States, according to the US Lung Cancer Alliance. The organization also noted that lung cancer will kill three times as many men as prostate cancer this year, and it will kill nearly twice as many women as breast cancer.

Nanotubes, which were discovered about 20 years ago, are rolled-up sheets of interlocked carbon atoms that form a tube so strong and light that some scientists have suggested using a nanotube wire to tether satellites in a fixed position above Earth. They're used in various applications -- from building tiny nanoradios and tennis rackets to iPods and computer chips.

The current market for carbon nanotbues is between US$200 and $300 million worldwide, according to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. And the market is expected to grow to between US$1 billion and $2 billion in the next few years.

The study released this week showed that nanotubes, which are built in many different forms, pose health risks when they're long and thin. Shorter and curlier nanotubes don't appear to have the same effect.

Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies and a co-author of the paper, told Computerworld that if a foreign material enters the lungs, scavenger cells will engulf the matter and move it into the higher airwaves where it can be coughed up or swallowed. The problem with the long, thin nanotubes is that the scavenger cells can't wrap themselves around them and die trying.

"Then after a number of scavenger cells [try to get rid of the material], the body walls off the fiber, trying to segregate it," explained Maynard. "The body is being irritated day after day, month after month, and year after year and eventually something has to give. Over time, you still have this material there and its presence leads to a point where cancer begins to form."

What's still unclear is how many products or research projects are using long, thin nanotubes. Maynard noted that it's still unclear whether the nanotubes could be emitted from a product, like a tennis racket that might be scraped along the court, or if the material is dangerous to workers in a production facility that uses nanotubes. In many cases, he added, the material starts off as a lightweight, dry powder. It's not known how easily that powder could be inhaled or how far into the lungs it would travel.

"If action isn't taken to make sure we're developing safe uses of nanotubes, it could go badly for the market," said Maynard. "You'll see a loss of trust from investors or from consumers. This study has appeared at a very fortuitous state. It presents the opportunity to take a number of actions now to enable a very strong market because we'll have the ability to discover how to use them safely at a very early stage."

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Sharon Gaudin

Computerworld
Show Comments

Essentials

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Kathy Cassidy

STYLISTIC Q702

First impression on unpacking the Q702 test unit was the solid feel and clean, minimalist styling.

Anthony Grifoni

STYLISTIC Q572

For work use, Microsoft Word and Excel programs pre-installed on the device are adequate for preparing short documents.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?