The tiniest particles that may be a threat as bad as asbestos

Nanomaterials are everywhere, but their use is totally unregulated. Emily Dugan reports
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Europe is failing to control a burgeoning industry in microscopic materials, prompting claims that it has failed to heed the lessons from millions of asbestos deaths, according to a hard-hitting new report. Despite early warnings of the damage some nanomaterials could cause, EU governments are still reacting too slowly to signs of potentially deadly environmental hazards.

Nanomaterials – tiny particles as small as a billionth of a metre – are not currently governed by any regulations specific to them in Britain or the EU, despite concern about the possible effect some may have on health.

A major study published by the European Environment Agency (EEA) last week says European governments – including the UK's – are "paralysed by analysis" and failing to act: "Twenty years have elapsed since first indications of nanomaterial harm were published", it said, "and in the intervening time an increasing body of literature has been developed on how nanomaterials interact with cells, mammals and aquatic organisms. Yet many governments still call for more information as a substitute for action."

Carbon nanotubes – tiny pieces of carbon used to strengthen all sorts of materials – have been singled out for their potential to cause health problems similar to asbestos if inhaled. Research shows that long carbon nanotubes – which are similar in shape to asbestos fibres – cause precancerous growths on the lungs in the same way as asbestos when tested on mice.

Nanosilver, whose antibacterial properties mean it is used in everything from disinfectant to socks, was also highlighted in the report, which says it might damage the environment if it gets into the water system. Early studies suggest that nanosilver in water harms the health and fertility of fish and algae, which could damage ecosystems.

Despite a growing body of evidence that carbon nanotubes may be carcinogenic, the industry is so unregulated that The Independent on Sunday was able to order a jar of the particles over the internet without receiving any safety warnings or checks. There is also anecdotal evidence of factories around Europe flouting basic health guidance and allowing their workers to mix the particles in open buckets without respirators.

Professor Ken Donaldson at the University of Edinburgh's Centre for Inflammation Research, whose studies first showed that longer carbon nanotubes could have the potential to cause conditions such as the cancer mesothelioma in mice, said: "I think the biggest risk is in factories. People are now making carbon nanotubes in bulk amounts, so there are people handling them in large quantities. I think people should be careful about nanofibres and find a way to regulate them."

But he cautioned against any blanket ban of nanotechnology, saying: "Nanoparticles are the same as other particles: some are super-harmful like asbestos and others are virtually harmless."

Steffen Foss Hansen, co-author of the EEA study, said: "We have to hope that the production method used to make carbon nanotubes is in enclosed chambers, but it's the handling, especially by people who put them into products, that we're concerned about. We know they're used to strengthen other materials and it's the workers we're worried about. If they're not protected they could inhale the fibres, which could cause this asbestos-like effect."

Vito Buonsante, a lawyer at the environmental organisation Client Earth, believes regulation is urgently needed. "First of all we need a compulsory product register of nanomaterials so we can see where they're used," he said. "Workers are guinea pigs in this; we should have some surveillance of the medium and long-term effect on workers."

"Not all nanomaterials are toxic and they should not be banned. The point is that we urgently need to know and isolate the cases in which nanomaterials can cause irreversible harm, to avoid a potential catastrophe."

Both of the major UK manufacturers of carbon nanotubes – Haydale and Thomas Swan – take extensive precautions against the inhalation of the fibres, but there is concern that other companies which buy nanotubes and mix them with other substances, such as epoxy resin, might not be taking the same steps.

Dylan Walters, operations manager at Haydale in Carmarthenshire, said: "I would like to see very strict regulations with regard to manufacturing and managing materials – this is where people went wrong with asbestos. We've spent a huge amount of money to be absolutely sure that we work with the best protection humanly possible, but anyone can go on the internet and buy carbon nanotubes and that's the problem.

"I've seen some absolutely shocking things. I've seen people working on a desktop with nanotubes without a respirator or gloves on and their hands are black. Or you'll see someone with just a mask on, mixing resin and carbon nanotubes on the floor in an open bowl. You should be fully suited up and it should be done in an environment to capture particles. This is all because it's not properly legislated."

A Nano guide

What is nanotechnology?

It's the science of really tiny stuff.

What kind of stuff?

Mostly metals and minerals – just about anything as long as it's really small.

How small?

A nanometre is a billionth of a metre, so a material can be called "nano" when it is adapted in minuscule form and measures between one and 100 nanometres.

What use is anything that small?

Well, you can add nano particles to resin or plastic, for instance, to make objects stronger.

What else is it used for?

Sun cream, bicycles, clothes. Nano silver can make socks less smelly.

Why does being small make nano particles different from their original material?

When you're adapting a material to such a tiny, atomic scale, its properties can change.

Is it safe?

Mostly. But you have to handle it properly. Already people are worried about workers inhaling carbon nanotubes while mixing them without proper protection. Nano silver in the water could be toxic to fish and algae.