Plant-based cellulose nanofibers, as opposed to carbon nanotubes suitable for similar purposes, don’t pose a short-term danger to human lungs, particularly when the fibers are very short. So says a study done as part of National Research Programme “Opportunities and Risks of Nanomaterials” (NRP 64).
Rather than experimenting on animals, researchers used human lung tissue in test tubes to develop a simulated 3D lung system that mimics human lungs. They found short nanofibers were fairly easily eliminated, but lung cells were less efficient at getting rid of longer fibers, as is true of humans inhaling asbestos fibers.
The study issues a recommendation that, in order to best protect technicians working with nanomaterials, manufacturers should develop and use soft, pliable, short, plant-based nanofibers rather than longer, rigid tubes. Thankfully, some specific safety guidelines for workers in this burgeoning field of bioscience.