If you've been worried about what the health effects might be if nanotechnology escaped into the environment and found its way back into our bodies, you may soon find out. Carbon nanotubes have turned up in the lungs of children in Paris, and the problem is probably already widespread, reports New Scientist.
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Researchers at the University of Paris-Saclay, France, found evidence of the nanotubes after studying fluid from the airways of 64 asthmatic children in Paris. Every single child in the study had nanotubes in his or her lungs. Five other children studied also had them in their macrophages, which are immune cells tasked with clearing unwanted particles from the lungs.
The study could not determine a link between the nanotubes and the children's asthma, so at this time it is unclear if their illness left them particularly vulnerable to retaining these microstructures compared to the general population. But it's likely that if these children have been breathing them in, so have we all.
Carbon nanotubes are essentially a rolled-up sheet of carbon molecules. Since they are so lightweight, have good conductivity and are extremely durable and strong, they are very useful in multifarious technological fields, such as electronics. The concern, however, is that these super-properties could also make them super-contaminants if they prove to be harmful.
There's no evidence that nanotubes in our airways are a health hazard... yet. But very little research has been conducted on the matter. Mouse studies have shown that injected nanotubes can cause immune reactions similar to those produced by asbestos. That doesn't necessarily mean that carbon nanotubes will have the same cancer-causing effects as asbestos does, but it does raise some potential concerns.
Even if the nanotubes don't prove toxic themselves, they could become vehicles for other pollutants that might get stuck to them or get trapped inside them.
The research team could not isolate the precise source of the nanotubes found in the children's lungs from the study, but they did find similar structures in dust and vehicle exhaust collected from samples around Paris.
“I guess we’ve been breathing them for a very long time," speculated Jonathan Grigg from Queen Mary, University of London. "But it needs more work, for sure.”