Nanotubes 'as deadly as asbestos'

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Certain carbon nanotubes may be as hazardous to humans as asbestos, according to a new report..

A paper to be published in Nature Nanotechnology suggests that inhaling certain types of nanotubes can lead to the formation of mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer commonly caused by exposure to asbestos.

"This is a wakeup call for nanotechnology in general and carbon nanotubes in particular," said Andrew Maynard, co-author of the report and chief science advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.

"As a society, we cannot afford not to exploit this incredible material, but neither can we afford to get it wrong, as we did with asbestos."

The researchers found that mice exposed to long, straight carbon nanotubes developed conditions that precede mesothelioma, which can take as long as 40 years to develop in humans.

Kenneth Donaldson, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, who was part of the research team, said that the effects of the nanotube exposure are virtually identical to those of asbestos.

The infamous building material is said to have been responsible for billions of dollars in health and building repair costs.

"The results were clear," said Professor Donaldson. "Long thin carbon nanotubes showed the same effects as long thin asbestos fibres."

The researchers did not, however, dismiss all nanotubes as potentially harmful. The study found that the long thin structures can be harmful if inhaled, but that shorter or curly nanotubes do not pose any sort of health risk.

Professor Donaldson also noted that the way in which the tubes become airborne is not yet known.

"Short or curly carbon nanotubes did not behave like asbestos and, by knowing the possible dangers of long, thin carbon nanotubes, we can work to control them," he said.

"This is good news, as it shows that carbon nanotubes and their products could be made to be safe."

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