A recent study is the first to document cases of serious illness and death in humans apparently caused by nanoparticles. Chinese researchers document the deaths of two print factory workers and severe lung problems experienced by five others, following exposure to nanoparticles and a mix of other toxic solvents.

Workers inhaled fumes produced when the polystyrene boards they were required to coat with a plastic material (polyacrylic ester) were heated to 75-100°C. This coating paste was found to have nanoparticles of around 30nm wide as did the dust particles that had collected at the inlet of the broken ventilation unit. Particles this size were also found in the chests and lung biopsies of affected workers.

The women in the study had worked at the factory for 5-13 months. Their workplace was around 70 square metres with one door and no windows. Workers had no safety or toxicity knowledge on the materials they worked with and only occasionally used cotton gauze masks for protection. Nanoparticles are used in the manufacture household cleaning products and appliances, paints, dirt repellent coatings for windows as well as many other products.

This tragic study highlights the need for the public’s right to know when handling, consuming or purchasing nanoparticles. In this case, workers (and eventually consumers) are essentially being tested on when specific health and safety issues surrounding manufactured nanoparticles are unknown but continue to be used.

Researchers of the study stated that “There is an indication from this report that shows the possible dangerous nature of nanoparticles… These cases arouse concern that long-term exposure to some nanoparticles without protective measures may be related to serious damage to human lungs. It is impossible to remove nanoparticles that have penetrated the cell… Effective protective methods appear to be extremely important in terms of protecting exposed workers from illness caused by nanoparticles”.

There have been many high profile responses to the study so far. Several leading nanotoxicologists have warned of the uncertainties and knowledge gaps associated with the study. Others emphasise that if accepted occupational health and safety measures had been implemented (eg adequate ventilation, wearing of face masks), that the workers would not have suffered ill health.

However given that most workers exposed to nanoparticles are not informed that this is the case, that it is still unknown to what extent existing personal protective equipment will protect workers from unsafe nanoparticle exposure, and that many workers will face exposure to nanoparticles at the same time as a cocktail of other chemicals, the fact that two workers have died is an extremely serious warning call.