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Are nanofibers a health risk?

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New research has suggested that nanofibers may prove as high a health risk as asbestos.

New research has suggested that nanofibers may prove as high a health risk as asbestos.

Asbestos is known to cause a number of health issues. Inhaling asbestos fibers can cause fibrosis of the lungs, swelling, weight loss, warts and a persistent cough -- and the use of asbestos now faces regulation in the West.

In a new study published by Toxicology Sciences, researchers have suggested that inhaling tiny fibers created by the nanotechnology industry -- airborne just as asbestos is carried -- may cause similar problems.

Experiments on mice focused on how the varying length and shape of nanofibers suggested that longer nanofibers are the most dangerous --even though mice and human lungs are different. After injecting silver nanofibers into the lungs of mice, the scientists found that any fibers longer than five-thousandths of a millimeter were more likely to become lodged in the lungs and cause respiratory problems.

Nickel-nanofibres and carbon nanotubes were then used in further tests -- and nanofibers smaller than five-thousandths of a millimeter were able to leave lungs without problems.

Professor of respiratory toxicology at the University of Edinburgh told the BBC:

"We knew that long fibers, compared with shorter fibers, could cause tumours, but until now we did not know the cut-off length at which this happened.

Knowing the length beyond which the tiny fibres can cause disease is important in ensuring that safe fibers are made in the future as well as helping to understand the current risk from asbestos and other fibers."

If further studies further support this length of nanofiber as dangerous, then industry guidelines can be altered to try and prevent exposure in the nanotechnology field from causing health problems.

(via BBC)

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Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure