OMFG Nanotubes Cause Cancer!

Tom James @ 29-05-2008

asbestosIn typical Daily Mail style I begin with the ever-dependable “X Causes Cancer Shock” blog post. [image by shaymus]

That’s right! The Magic Molecules of the Future or carbon nanotubes – shortly to be used in every worthwhile human pursuit from watching pornography to curing cancer – may in fact cause cancer themselves.

That is to say: a couple of studies, one published in Nature Nanotechnology and another published by The Japanese Journal of Toxicological Science suggest that certain kinds of carbon nanotubes induce lesions and mesothelioma in a manner similar to another wonder-material, asbestos.

The report in Nature suggests that nanotubes longer than about 20 nm micrometers are the chief culprits:

Carbon nanotubes that are straight and 20 micrometers or longer in length–qualities that are well suited for composite materials used in sports equipment–resemble asbestos fibers. This has long led many experts to suggest that these carbon nanotubes might pose the same health risks as asbestos, a fire-resistant material that can cause mesothelioma, a cancer of a type of tissue surrounding the lungs. But until now, strong scientific evidence for this theory was lacking.

Fortunately in order to be as thoroughly unpleasant as asbestos, carbon nanotubes would need to become airborne and and be inhaled, something that carbon nanotubes are apparently not inclined to do.

As ever, more research is needed.

From a science fictional perspective: what will be the tabloid healthcare-stories of decades hence?

The problem with things like asbestos and thalidomide is that their terrible side-effects only come to light after millions of lives are damaged. And these tragedies are by definition black swans, inherently unpredictable and devastating with it.

Where is the next hubristic-but-unpredictable human-derived disaster going to come from? Carbon nanotubes? Quantum computing? Could it be something so boringly innocuous that you use it every day without thinking, whilst it eats away at every cell in your body?

I’m not talking about global warming or bird flu – I mean really out-there, mind-blowingly awful stuff we haven’t thought of yet. Stuff that’s affecting us right now that we don’t know about.

Anyway, less gloom and more cheer. Here is a funny story about a crazy luddite!

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6 Responses to “OMFG Nanotubes Cause Cancer!”

  1. Jesse says:

    nm is nanometers, billionths of a meter, not the micrometers mentioned in the quote. It’s a big difference!

  2. Paul Raven says:

    Fixed – cheers Jesse!

    Welcome aboard, TJ – rest assured that our readers are pretty sharp at spotting when we make mistakes! 😉

  3. Brian Carnell says:

    “The problem with things like asbestos and thalidomide is that their terrible side-effects only come to light after millions of lives are damaged. And these tragedies are by definition black swans, inherently unpredictable and devastating with it.”

    I don’t know much about asbestos, but it is simply not true that the thalidomide tragedy was “inherently unpredictable.” At the time thalidomide was first marketed in the 1950s, new drug compounds were not legally required to be tested for their teratogenicity, and so typically weren’t. Had thalidomide been tested in a pregnant animal model, its propensity for causing birth defects would have been quickly discovered as it has teratogenitic effects in a number of species, including rats an mice.

  4. Tomas Martin says:

    Welcome TJ!

    I’m just about finishing my undergraduate degree (last exam on thursday, hence my lack of posting). After that I’m going to be working on an industrial-funded PHD in nanocrystalline diamond solar thermal power, so nanophysics is something I’m fascinated about. It’s amazing watching the physicists in my department fiddling with what looks like just solutions, which are actually growing tiny nanowires.

  5. TJ says:

    What wonderful responses. Thank you Mr Carnell for your prompt response. And to Mr (soon to be “Dr”) Martin for his supportive and interesting comments.

    As to Jesse, even more thanks are in order. I apologise profusely and will be more vigilant in the future.

  6. Tomas Martin says:

    Thank you TJ. It’ll be a pleasure to be sharing blog space with you, as soon as I knock these last three exams down. Wave equations of phonons is not nearly as exciting as writing here on Futurismic.