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.
I’ve been worrying about potential danger from these guys ever since I first heard about them. Now comes some research indicating strongly that nanoparticles/nanofibers could be deadly to humans who are exposed to them. This particular research shows that it may be the length of the fibers that’s critical to whether they might eventually induce disease.
Some scientists set up the experiment with five types of silver nanofibers of various lengths and exposed mice to them. The mice developed inflammation in the pleura (the lining of the lungs) when exposed to fibers of a certain length—4 µm to be precise (that’s 4 millionths of a micron). We are talking tiny.
Since the pleura is exactly the same part of the body that is attacked when asbestos is breathed or ingested, researchers concluded their research could be relevant for colleagues investigating malignant pleural mesothelioma (MPM), a deadly and aggressive type of lung cancer. Mesothelioma, as yet incurable, is the subject of lawsuits across the US and around the world because so many corporations either negligently or deliberately concealed from workers the dangers of inhaling or ingesting asbestos.
Asbestos was and is (in third world countries where it is still being widely used without regard for its danger to humans) a highly profitable substance. Its fire-retardant and heat-resistant properties, as well as its ability to be flexible and to strengthen other substances have made it much sought-after for hundreds of years. Profits grew even as those who worked with it were being sickened because of inadequate protections. And the long latency period before asbestos diseases manifest has helped camouflage the disregard for human safety—people may develop mesothelioma cancer as late as 10, 20, 30 or even 50 years after being exposed to asbestos. Who was going to connect a lung disease in a 60-something-year-old with what he did for a living 30 years ago?
This new research is the first solid evidence I’ve seen that nanofibers may hold the same type of danger to human health and life as asbestos. And heaven knows, nanotechnology is looking to be even more profitable than asbestos. The permutations of products made better, stronger, more flexible—almost more anything you want—with nanotechnology seem almost limitless. As may also be the greed of those who stand to make enormous financial gains from its use.
Let’s hope all the profits and material gains do not come at the price of ever more human suffering and lost lives.
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