Category Archives: nanotechnology

Finally – Official safety standard for nanotech workers

nanofiber

nanofiber (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve written about the similarities in asbestos and nanofibers before – and therefore the similar dangers of the two substances. Asbestos was in use – and slowly killing people – for many hundreds of years before the connection was made between breathing it and dying of asbestosis or mesothelioma decades later. Nanofibers are incredibly strong and tough fibers of microscopic width – like one-one thousandth the diameter of a human hair – that are used to make supertough and strong composite materials.

The problem is that nanofibers, like asbestos fibers, are so tiny that people can easily breathe them deep into their lungs or ingest them (say, when eating a sandwich on the job). Inside the human body these fibers eventually cause scarring and disease and death.

Now I’m happy to report that the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has finally published a safety standard for the length of nanofibers. Workers involved in manufacturing items that use nanofibers must now be protected from exposure to nanofibers. The standard is set “as low as we can measure” according to Andrew Maynard, chair of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In other words, they want literally no loose nanofibers to be allowed in the air of a plant that uses them.

It took centuries to stop companies from recklessly exposing workers to asbestos fibers. Now perhaps all the asbestos lawsuits now being filed all over the world are serving as a warning to companies – and nanotech training schools – that they can’t pretend there’s no danger to people working with nanofibers.

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Nano help for stem cell rebuilding hearts

English: Diagram to show how embryonic stem ce...

English: Diagram to show how embryonic stem cells are differentiated (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m excited to report news involving three of my favorite topics: nanotechnology, stem cells, and fixing hearts. Past efforts using stem cells to treat heart attacks and heart failure haven’t been very successful. And the worst part is, they don’t know why. Apparently they inject the stem cells into a patient but then don’t know where they end up. Do they stay in the targeted part of the heart or wander off somewhere else? If the treatment doesn’t work, up til now there’s been no way to determine why not. Now if only they could tell where the stem cells go and what they do…

Enter this new visualizing technique. Doctors at Stanford University School of Medicine have designed a way to use nanotechnology to track stem cells after they’ve been introduced into a patient’s body. The thought is that once they know where the stem cells have gone, they’ll be able to see more clearly what’s happening with them.  The tracking technique, which also allows doctors to guide the stem cells more precisely to their intended location,  involves marking the stem cells with nanoparticles and a gadolinium-laced contrast agent and following them with standard ultrasounds (Yay, non-invasive!) as they enter the body and move around. The hope is the docs’ll be able to see exactly where the stem cells take up residence and watch what they do. Do they stay in the targeted area or do they diffuse away from the heart? Do they develop into the desired cells or into something else entirely?

I know that gadolinium as a contrast agent ingredient is known to cause people who have kidney problems to develop a terrible and disfiguring disease known as Nephrogenic Systemic Fibrosis. It’s certainly good to hear that the substance can also be used in this new way to potentially help people with serious heart issues.

Unfortunately, this exciting discovery has at least three more years before it can be used in humans. But as with all life-limiting conditions, those of us who live with them are always looking for reasons to hope.

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Nanotechnology’s been around forever. And…?

Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology (Photo credit: podbay)

Nanotechnology has been around for thousands of years, says Nanofilm CEO Scott Rickert in an article for Virtual Strategy Magazine. He wonders how it got tagged as something new and unknown – and therefore, impliedly, worth being careful with.

Stating, as Mr. Rickert does, that nanoparticles have been around for four thousand years, and that humans have, for the most part completely unknowingly, been using nanotechnology for things like fighting bacteria, does not a defense make that using nanotechnology for any purpose is inherently and automatically safe.

After all, it’s well known that asbestos, which occurs naturally in pockets all over the world, has been being used by humans for thousands of years. Flame-proofing tablecloths was just one of the reasons ancient Romans used asbestos. And yet early history reports Roman  slaves who worked with the material as sickening and dying of respiratory problems. Yet science didn’t make the definitive connection between asbestos fibers and deadly diseases of the lungs until the early 20th century.

Asbestos fibres - a single fibre is believed t...

Asbestos fibres – a single fibre is believed to cause mesothelioma (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When you consider it can take 20, 30 or even 50 years for the effects of asbestos fibers to result in killer diseases like mesothelioma, asbestosis and other cancers, it’s easy to see how companies that stand to make a mint from  manufacturing such a  material might be hesitant to publish any evidence that working with the material can eventually lead to disability and death.

It costs big money to put appropriate safety measures in place to protect workers from inhaling or ingesting the type of sub-microscopically tiny fibers that make up asbestos and nanotubes and fibers. And there’s plenty of evidence now that certain nanomaterials are indeed made up of the same-sized fibers as asbestos.

While no one wants to stop science from continuing to research what wonderful things we can do with nanomaterials, no one on the other hand needs to make a killing – financially or otherwise – by taking on such work and sacrificing workers’ health in order to make a bigger profit.

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