By now, I think that most readers of this blog have either read "Exposure to Nanoparticles is Related to Pleural Effusion, Pulmonary Fibrosis, and Granuloma" by Yuguo Song, Xue Li, and Xuqin Du, recently published in the European Respiratory Journal or any of the news articles based on it, such as this one from Reuters. The paper makes for very sobering reading.

For anyone who hasn’t read the article,a brief synopsis is in order:

From January 2007 to April 2008, seven female patients were admitted to Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing. All seven worked in the same department of a printing plant and all seven were suffering from the same symptom – shortness of breath, pleural effusion and pericardial effusion, and were treated with antibiotics and surgery and placed on oxygen to assist their breathing. Five of the women stabilized; two, ages 29 and 19, died of respiratory failure. Further investigations revealed accumulations of nanoparticles in their lungs, nanoparticles that the women had been exposed to for various lengths of time in their workplace.

The authors reached the following conclusion:

. . . it is the nano materials containing nano-sized particles that appear to produce the toxicities seen in the exposed workers.

Therefore, we have more evidence to show that the nano particles contained in the polyacrylate emulsion had possibly caused the disease. There is an indication from this report that shows the possible dangerous nature of nano particles. Nano particles can penetrate the membrane of pulmonary epithelial cells and lodge in the cytoplasm and caryoplasm, as well as aggregate around the membrane of red blood cells and exert toxicity. Patients may develop clinically serious conditions associated with damaged respiratory function including a progressive pulmonary fibrosis that is resistant to several methods of treatment.

Many critics of nanotechnology and nanoindustry may use this study as a basis for calls to end the use of nanoparticles in manufacturing processes or to call for the shutdown of nanoindustries altogether. That is unlikely to happen. Too much time, money and effort has been invested for a shutdown to become a reality. The genie has left the bottle and it’s not going back.

Further, as the authors state throughout their article, the women’s workplace contributed as much, if not more, to the women’s illnesses as the nanoparticles did:

A survey of the patients’ workplace was conducted. It measures about 70 square meters. . . has one door, no windows, and one machine used to air spray materials, heat and dry boards. This machine has three atomizing spray nozzles, and one gas exhauster (a ventilation unit) that broke 5 months before the occurrence of the disease.

Accumulated dust particles were found at the intake of the gas exhauster. During the five months preceding illness the door of the workspace was kept closed due to cold outdoor temperatures. The workers . . .  had no knowledge of industrial hygiene and possible toxicity from the materials they worked with. The only personal protective equipment (PPE) used on an occasional  basis was cotton gauze masks. According to the patients, there were often some flocculi produced during air spraying, which caused itching on their faces and arms. It is estimated that the airflow or turnover rates of indoor air would be very slow, or quiescent due to the lack of windows and the closed door.

In their conclusions, the authors note that

. . . more studies on the possible mechanisms, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of the nano material related disease are needed.

. . . these cases arouse concerns that long term exposure to some nanoparticles without protective measures my be related to serious damage to human beings. . . . Effective protective methods appear to be important in terms of protecting exposed workers from illness caused by nano particles. (emphasis added).

Such future studies as the authors call for may be used as the basis for new and more effective regulation of the nanoindustrial environment, to prevent tragedies such as the deaths of the two young women in this study.