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Carbon nanotubes have practical applications for anything and everything, but is there a dark side of CN that we are ignoring?

Nanotechnology was supposed to revolutionize the world.  Experts in material science, bioengeering, and chemical engineering were now beginning to manufacture products 0.0001 times the width of a human hair.  The unique properties of materials this small promised a future of advanced miniaturization of electronic components, novel pharamaceuticals and drug delivery systems, improved gas mileage, longer lasting tennis balls, better sunscreens and even flat panel televisions that anyone can afford. 

While that future may still come, there is rising concern about the potential risks of nanoparticle toxicity.  Carbon nanotubes are at the forefront of the discussion.  In 2004, NASA researchers at the Johnson Space Center showed that when carbon nanotubes reached the lungs, they were more toxic than carbon black and even quartz on an equal-weight basis.  In 2005, researchers at UT El Paso, showed that the cell toxicity effect of carbon-nanotubes was essential identical to that of chrysotile asbestos.  Last March at a Society of Toxicology meeting, researchers from Tottori University showed the first series of images that showed carbon nanotubes entering the blood within a minute of contact with the lung.  Once in the blood, the negatively charged carbon nanotubes attached to red blood cells, potentially leading to future complications.

On the other hand, the carbon nanotubes which are so dangerous in the lung may actually provide a ideal structure for bone growth and repair following injury.  Carbon nanotubes also have a role in the development of high tensile-strength fibers, more efficient diodes, ultra-efficient solar panels. Likewise, nanoparticles made of cerium and yttrium oxides actually have antioxidant properties and enhance cell survival.

The real question is whether the concern should be primarily for workers in the industry who are continuously exposed to the nanoparticles, or if the proliferation of nanoparticles in the environment will make it a concern for everyone.  No one knows the answer.  The good news is that the industry is taking a close look at the problems and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (a division of the CDC) and the European Commission are both in the process of developing additional safety guidelines.




"Google fired a shot heard 'round the world, and now a second American company has answered the call to defend the rights of the Chinese people." -- Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.)




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