Carbon nanotubes found in bikes likened to asbestos

Industry may be underestimating dangers

According to research conducted at the University of Edinburgh and published in the Nature Nanotechnology journal this week, current assumptions about the safety of carbon nanotube technology may be dangerously wide of the mark. 

The material is widely used in the cycling industry as part of frames, forks steerers and seat tubes, which are regularly cut to size by professional and even home mechanics. But the potentially worrying news for those who work with the substance is that the needle-like structure of nanotube molecules mean they could behave in the same way as similarly shaped asbestos particles once inside the human body. 

In practice this means that if inhaled, when for instance a frame is being manufactured, or a stem or seatpost is cut to length, their presence could lead to mesothelioma, a cancer affecting the lining of the lungs.

Asbestos particles are known to be dangerous because they are small enough to be ingested deep inside the lungs and yet their shape does not allow the organs to get rid of them as it would with dust or other suspended particulate matter we regularly breathe in.

In the Edinburgh experiments, when mice were exposed to nanotube molecules the result was “asbestos-like  pathogenic behaviour” which saw the animals developing inflammations and the formation of lesions known as granulomas.

The scientists involved in the tests have called for a more cautious approach to the introduction of the material to the general market and suggested there is a pressing need for further research into the effects of exposure.

"This is a wakeup call for nanotechnology in general and carbon nanotubes in particular," said Dr. Andrew Maynard, Chief Science Advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies and a co-author on the paper. "As a society, we cannot afford not to exploit this incredible material, but neither can we afford to get it wrong as we did with asbestos." 

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