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Was Lung Illness in Chinese Workers Caused by Nanoparticles?

Monday, September 21, 2009 at 06:10 PM EDT

The first major case study of workers contracting lung and heart illnesses as a result of nanoparticles was released in the September issue of the European Respiratory Journal. The case involves seven workers of a Chinese printing plant, who fed a chemical paste that contained nanoparticles into an auto-spray machine that coated polystyrene boards.

All seven workers developed serious lung and heart conditions, and two ultimately died from their illnesses. In the aftermath of the case study, questions continue to be raised about whether or not nanoparticles are to blame.

Certainly, the symptoms exhibited by the workers are remarkably similar to those exhibited by lab mice during earlier research efforts performed by NIOSH and others. In these studies, nanoparticles such as carbon nanotubes and metal oxides were deemed toxic to both the hearts and lungs of lab mice.

Unfortunately, the case study of the Chinese workers cannot adequately determine whether or not nanoparticles played a part in manifesting the illnesses. The results are inconclusive due to a lack of exposure data. Additionally, experts point to several alternative explanations that may have resulted in the development of these heart and lung conditions.

Beyond nanoparticles, the workers were exposed to a number of other hazardous chemicals, including butanoic acid, butyl ester, N-butyl ether, acetic acid, toluene, di-tert-butyl peroxide, 1-butanol, acetic acid ethenyl ester, isopropyl alcohol and ethylene dioxide. Thermodegradation fume products absent of nanoparticles have already been proven to cause illness in occupational settings. Additionally, traditional paint spraying has also been known to be hazardous.

While the case study is not conclusive, it does raise additional concern into the safety of nanoparticles. Regardless of whether or not nanoparticles contributed to the illnesses of the seven Chinese workers, NIOSH strongly recommends that safety precautions be enforced in occupational environments in which nanoparticles are present.