New scientific evidence has been published that multi-walled carbon nanotubes – the so-called ‘wonder material’ of nanotechnology – cause mesothelioma in test mice. A scientific study published in the May issue of "Nature Nanotechnology" joins a February study published in the "Journal of Toxicological Sciences" in demonstrating that multi-walled carbon nanotubes induce asbestos-like pathogenicity in mice.
Carbon nanotubes are now used commercially in: sports equipment; fuel lines, pumps, filters and coatings for premium cars; specialty boating, building and aerospace equipment; electronics equipment; and as additives in a wide range of high performance plastics and polymers. They are touted for wide use in manufacturing, electronics, packaging and even food packaging.
Industry analysts estimate the value of products containing carbon nanotubes to be up to US$1.9 billion by 2010. But despite the mounting evidence that multi-walled carbon nanotubes produce mesothelioma in test mice, and the rapid growth in their commercial use, there are still no new laws and no nanotechnology-specific workplace exposure standards anywhere in the world to ensure that we do not repeat the tragic mistakes of asbestos.
In 2004 the Head of the Science Strategy and Statistics Division of the United Kingdom’s Health and Safety Executive, John Ewins, noted that if regulators introduced nanotechnology “controls that are too lax, significant health effects [will] harm many people. The history of asbestos should warn all of society of the human and financial costs of this possibility”.
Yet four years later, we still have no nanotechnology-specific controls to protect workers, the public and the environment from risks associated with multi-walled carbon nanotubes and other nanomaterials. Governments’ failure to take action in the face of early warnings about nanotoxicity is leaving us vulnerable to a repeat of the asbestos tragedy.
Friends of the Earth reiterates its call for a moratorium on the commercial use of all nanomaterials until they have gone through mandatory new safety assessment to ensure that workers, the public and the environment do not face unsafe exposure.
For a background briefing on the two studies mentioned visit the website of the International Council on Nanotechnology.
For a detailed briefing produced by Friends of the Earth on the occupational exposure risks of nanomaterials and their parallels with asbestos click here.
 Health and Safety Laboratory, UK. 2004. “Nanomaterials at work: a risk to health at work?” In Report of Presentations at Plenary and Workshop Sessions and Summary of Conclusions. First International Symposium on Occupational Health Implications of Nanomaterials, held by the UK Health and Safety Laboratory and the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Available at http://www.hsl.gov.uk