There is no question that nano technology holds enormous engineering promise. Not least amongst that is the huge contribution to the advancement of electronics that nanotubes are already recognised as having.
But in the enthusiastic rush to capitalise on this technology has industry recognised the potential health risks that nanotubes may hold that could prove similar to those presented by asbestos fibres?
In terms of product innovation nano technology is already showing how it can radically effect transistor design. A while back Dutch scientists managed to create a nanotube activated transistor that could toggle on and off with the flow of a single electron. The point here is that conventional transistors require the movement of millions of electrons, and that naturally causes heat. Also today’s transistor can only be shrunk to a certain size. A single electron switch, on the other hand avoids these size constraints.
However, lurking in the background is a darker side to nanotube technology. It relates to a potential health hazard that could effect thousands of people in the electronics industry.
Because nanotubes are microscopic, it is known they can infiltrate the human body via the lungs, skin, and digestive system. They are similar in structure to asbestos fibres, and we know the proven latent danger of those and the high incidence of mesothelioma developing years after inhalation.
The action of microscopic nanotubes in the lungs holds similar risks. Once in the lung, physicians consider it unlikely that the macrophages would be able to remove tissue damaged by them, especially when the invading nanotube had travelled beyond the lung surfactant. Recent research on mice confirms this fact.
So the dangers are there, and when nanotubes become viable as a commercial production process industry management must react to ensure the safety of employees. Failure to do that could be as costly and painful as the legacy of ignorance surrounding the use of asbestos.