Researchers: Feds must fund study of nanotube cancer risks

Bill to boost research passes committee vote this week on way to a congressional debate

Researchers and analysts are calling on the federal government to fund a study of the potential health risks of carbon nanotubes -- the building blocks of nanotechnology.

A study out of the University of Edinburgh that was released this week showed that some forms of nanotubes can cause cancer, much like asbestos does. The study shows that long, thin multiwalled carbon nanotubes, which look like asbestos fibers, actually behave like asbestos and can cause cancer of the lung lining.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., according to the Lung Cancer Alliance. The organization also noted that lung cancer will kill three times as many men as prostate cancer this year, and it will kill nearly twice as many women as breast cancer.

Nanotubes, which were discovered about 20 years ago, are rolled-up sheets of interlocked carbon atoms that form a tube so strong and light that some scientists have suggested using a nanotube wire to tether satellites in a fixed position above Earth. They're used in various applications -- from building tiny nanoradios and tennis rackets to iPods and computer chips.

The current market for carbon nanotubes is between $200 and $300 million worldwide, according to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. And the market is expected to grow to between $1 billion and $2 billion in the next few years.

The study released this week showed that nanotubes, which are built in many different forms, pose health risks when they're long and thin. Shorter and curlier nanotubes don't appear to have the same effect.

Andrew Maynard, chief science adviser to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies and a co-author of the study, told Computerworld that if a foreign material enters the lungs, scavenger cells will engulf the matter and move it into the higher airwaves where it can be coughed up or swallowed. The problem with the long, thin nanotubes is that the scavenger cells can't wrap themselves around them and die trying.

"Then after a number of scavenger cells [try to get rid of the material], the body walls off the fiber, trying to segregate it," explained Maynard. "The body is being irritated day after day, month after month, and year after year and eventually something has to give. Over time, you still have this material there and its presence leads to a point where cancer begins to form."

What's still unclear is how many products or research projects are using long, thin nanotubes. Maynard noted that it's still unclear whether the nanotubes could be emitted from a product, like a tennis racket that might be scraped along the court, or if the material is dangerous to workers in a production facility that uses nanotubes. In many cases, he added, the material starts off as a lightweight, dry powder. It's not known how easily that powder could be inhaled or how far into the lungs it would travel.

"If action isn't taken to make sure we're developing safe uses of nanotubes, it could go badly for the market," said Maynard. "You'll see a loss of trust from investors or from consumers. This study has appeared at a very fortuitous state. It presents the opportunity to take a number of actions now to enable a very strong market because we'll have the ability to discover how to use them safely at a very early stage."

Right now, the U.S. government is shelling out $1.5 billion a year to study nanotechnology, according to a staffer with the Committee on Science and Technology. Only 4% of that money, however, is earmarked for health and safety research.

"There's a growing sense that the level of funding is insufficient," said the staffer, who asked to go unnamed. "The result [of the study released this week] was a wake-up call that we need to put in place a well-funded research effort. The science isn't there yet."

The National Nanotechnology Initiative Amendments Act of 2008, which calls for funding more nanotech environmental health and safety research, passed out of committee last week and is slated for a full House vote during the first week in June. The bill -- known as Bill HR5940 -- also calls for a senior official in the White House to put together a health and safety road map for nanotechnology research.

"At this point in history, you can't build a strategy around a new material … without having a clear idea of the health and safety risks," said Matthew Nordan, president of Lux Research, a nanotechnology research firm. "The money spent on this research needs to increase by an order of magnitude, not in onesies and twosies. The U.S. government is not taking appropriate action … It's very clear the government needs to take a more active role."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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