The Dangerous Similarities between Nanomaterials and Asbestos Fibers

The Dangerous Similarities between Nanomaterials and Asbestos Fibers | Pintas & Mullins Law Firm

Nanofibers are a new scientific development that is in many ways expected to replace the industrial use of asbestos fibers. They can be made from a wide array of materials, including synthetic carbon, which was the focus of a recent study by the National Institute of Health (NIH). The discovery of such nanomaterials was made in 1985, and has since seen exponential growth in manufacturing and engineering. Lung cancer attorneys are concerned by the extreme growth in this field, as the toxicity of such materials still need to be researched and fully clarified. Recent evidence, such as this NIH study, suggests dangerous similarity with asbestos fibers, to which numerous fatal illnesses are related.

Diseases causally linked to asbestos exposure include mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer, which develop through fiber inhalation. Carbon nanomaterials (CNTs) have many physical similarities to asbestos fibers, which mean that respiratory exposure can produce similar effects in the body. Nanofibers are used to strengthen many products from tennis rackets to airplane wings to aerosol filters. Considering the wide range of potential applications, it is imperative that much research be done on the adverse health effects in order to avoid the global epidemic that resulted from the use of asbestos.

Inhalation exposure in occupational environments can occur during the synthesis, collection, purification, handling, and packing of nanomaterials. Because of their shape and dimensions, in particular their high characteristic ratio, graphenic CNTs may have similar pathogenic potential as naturally occurring asbestos fibers.

Fiber size and geometry determine the extent of fiber deposition into the lung and are well known to influence carcinogenicity. The deposition of inhaled fibers in the lung is determined by their length, width, shape, density, and by the anatomy of the respiratory tract. There is concern that exposure to CNTs will produce pathological reactions similar to that of asbestos fibers. The most probable route of exposure to CNTs, because of their very light weight, is inhalation. With a global production capacity of CNTs in excess of 300 tons per year, inhalation exposure may be occurring in workers providing the impetus to assess the potential pathogenicity of these materials.

In vivo data have demonstrated the potential for CNTs to produce acute lung injury, inflammation, and fibrosis. Exposure to asbestos fibers induces DNA damage, which is known as genotoxic. Preliminary evidence suggests that CNTs may also be genotoxic.

Unlike naturally-occurring asbestos fibers, CNTs are manufactured and therefore more amenable to modification before use. Removal of redox-active metals through purification may reduce fiber toxicity prior to their use in various downstream applications.

The epidemic of asbestos-related diseases has been an unfortunate consequence of wide-scale use of fibers for industrial and consumer applications in the absence of the recognition and acceptance of their toxicologic and carcinogenic properties. Although an asbestos ban may go a long way toward preventing occupationally-related diseases, it cannot completely eliminate environmental exposures and continuing exposure to asbestos-in-place. Enormous effort has been devoted to identifying the properties of asbestos that determine its bioactivity. 

Currently, the toxicologic and carcinogenic properties of nanoparticles await complete investigation, and it is unclear whether they will be equally, more, or less hazardous than asbestos fibers. Given the relative novelty of manufactured carbon nanomaterials, we are now presented with a unique opportunity to evaluate nanomaterial bioactivity prior to wide-scale use, and the inevitable scenarios of human exposure. The goal of nanotoxicology should not be to restrict production and use of nanomaterials, as has been done with asbestos, but to recognize that their use in industrial and consumer applications must be selective and balanced against their potentially harmful inherent properties. On the basis of the current understanding of asbestos pathogenicity, we can use this knowledge as a framework to guide the design and post-processing of carbon nanomaterials in a pre-emptive attempt to reduce the potential for exposure-related ‘nanodiseases’.

Lung cancer lawyers at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm will be keeping up to date on research in this field. If you were exposed to asbestos or other dangerous fibers and developed a related illness, contact our office today for a free legal consultation.