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Nanotubes, Like Asbestos, Could Threaten Health

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Nanotubes, Like Asbestos, Could Threaten Health

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Nanotubes, Like Asbestos, Could Threaten Health

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This is Day to Day, I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick. Researchers and investors are thrilled by nanotechnology which makes very small products or materials working on a tiny scale. Nano tubes for instance; tiny tubes of carbon atoms are some of the strongest fibers we have.

BRAND: They could be used in everything from batteries to medication, but researchers wonder are they safe?

CHADWICK: A new study in mice suggest that at least one kind of carbon nano tube could be as harmful as asbestos. NPR's Nell Greenfield Boyce has more.

NELL GREENFIELD BOYCE: Andrew Maynard says if you looked at jar full of carbon nano tubes, it wouldn't look like anything special.

Mr. ANDREW MAYNARD: It's a very light, fluffy black powder.

GREENFIELD BOYCE: And you have never smelled this stuff or inhaled it or anything?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAYNARD: I've avoided that studiously.

GREENFIELD BOYCE: Maynard studies nanotechnology, science and policy at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He says, under a powerful microscope, you can see that some carbon nanotubes look like fibers.

Mr. MAYNARD: It can be anything from what looks like a tangled ball of wool to very, very long straight thin fibers.

GREENFIELD BOYCE: So scientists wondered if long, thin nanotubes could act like asbestos fibers, the mineral that used to be used in everything from car brakes to insulation until it was linked to diseases like a cancer called methoselioma. In the new studies scientists took long carbon nano tubes and injected them into the bellies of mice. It's a way to see if the fibers could create biological changes that lead to that cancer, and they did. Maynard and his colleagues published the finding this week in the journal, Nano Technology.

Ms. VICKI COLVIN (Chemist, Rice University): It made me very pensive.

GREENFIELD BOYCE: Vicki Colvin is a chemist at Rice University who works on nano material.

Ms. COLVIN: It made me pensive because of the potential cause for alarm that people can have in seeing asbestos connected in some way to a nano material.

GREENFIELD BOYCE: She says she hopes the potential risk is not exaggerated because, this is just one nano material in one early study, and unlike asbestos research into potential health impacts of nanotechnology is coming long before the materials are in widespread use. So scientists can test theories about risk. For example, this particular study saw no effect from shorter curly carbon nanotubes that don't resemble asbestos fibers. Plus, while all that testing is going on, manufacturers of nanotubes can take steps to protect workers.

Mr. PAUL SCHULTZ (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health): Workers are, essentially, the first people in society to be exposed to new technologies, and nano technology is no exception.

GREENFIELD BOYCE: Paul Schultz is with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The institute has already made some recommendations about safety equipment and best practices, but he says there's still a long list of open questions about nano materials. How can they enter the body? Once they're inside, where do they go, and what do they do? But Shultz says his agency only spends a few million dollars a year trying to answer those questions.

Mr. SCHULTZ: That money is just a drop in the bucket to address all that.

GREENFIELD BOYCE: And that money is just a small fraction of the billions of dollars that the federal government has invested in developing nanotechnology. But Congress may soon be making some changes. It's considering legislation that would require the government to make health and safety research more of a priority. Nell Greenfield Boyce, NPR News.

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