Will Nanotechnology Become the Next Asbestos?

Image of Danger Asbestos Warning Sign

Over the last several years, a debate has developed on whether nanotechnology will become the next asbestos, or mass tort phenomenon. Asbestos is a group of naturally occurring, small fibers that can be inhaled and trapped in the lungs. where they cause inflammation. Over time, it causes inflammation and disease. Asbestosis and mesothelioma are caused by long-term exposure to asbestos. Can nanoparticle exposure lead to similar illnesses?

Nanoparticles are extremely small. They are so small you cannot see them with a microscope. Products that use nanoparticles include food packaging, carbon nanotubes, tennis balls, body armor, solar cells, food, drinks and bandages. If nanoparticles are harmful, both workers and consumers are at risk.

There are concerns nanoparticles may cause injuries and illnesses similar to asbestos. In a 2005 study published by Environmental Science & Technology, researchers discovered zinc oxide nanoparticles were toxic to lungs.

Researchers have also noted that carbon nanotubes resemble asbestos fibers, except much smaller. In one study, researchers injected mice with carbon nanotubes. The mice developed lesions and inflammation like those caused by asbestos exposure.

Can Nanoparticle Exposure Harm Workers and Consumers?

Skeptics claim nanotechnology will not lead to mass tort litigation. They have argued that because the physical and chemical characteristics of nanoparticles vary significantly, it is impossible to know how different nanoproducts will affect human health. Others have argued regulations on nanotechnology are strong, and capable of protecting consumers and workers.

Skeptics argue it could take decades before we know the true impact of nanoparticle exposure on human health. Although this industry has been around for years, it only recently exploded in popularity. Current estimates suggest the nanotechnology industry will net $500 billion in profits this year. This is multiple times what the industry was worth in 2010. Much like asbestos, there may be a long latency period before health problems develop. Skeptics argue that it is conjecture to claim nanoparticle exposure will lead to mass torts.

For now, the jury is out on whether nanotechnology can cause harm. There are many “unknowns” in this industry.

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