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 newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Sharon Gaudin

Computerworld
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Breitling Superocean Heritage Chronographe 44

Learn more >

SanDisk MicroSDXC™ for Nintendo® Switch™

Learn more >

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Panasonic 4K UHD Blu-Ray Player and Full HD Recorder with Netflix - UBT1GL-K

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Razer DeathAdder Expert Ergonomic Gaming Mouse

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

George Khoury

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The biggest perks for me would be that it comes with easy to use and comprehensive programs that make the collaboration process a whole lot more intuitive and organic

David Coyle

Brother PocketJet PJ-773 A4 Portable Thermal Printer

I rate the printer as a 5 out of 5 stars as it has been able to fit seamlessly into my busy and mobile lifestyle.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?