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  • They can be similar in shape to asbestos  fibres, which have been linked to lung cancers such as  mesothelioma

By Charles Walford

PUBLISHED:10:30 EST, 24  August 2012| UPDATED:10:31 EST, 24 August 2012

Tiny fibres made by the nanotechnology  industry could be as dangerous as asbestos if they are inhaled, say  researchers.

Nanofibres are found in a wide range of  everyday items, from sports equipment and waterproofs to nappies and vacuum  cleaners.

But some are similar in shape to asbestos  fibres, which have been known to cause lung cancers such as  mesothelioma.

Research on mice, published in Toxicology  Sciences, suggests the longer nanofibres are more dangerous.

Microscopic: Titanium dioxide nanofibre spiralMicroscopic: Titanium dioxide nanofibre spiral

Human and mouse lungs are different, but the  researchers hope the study will help to design safer nanofibres.

Ken Donaldson, professor of respiratory  toxicology at the University of Edinburgh, said: ‘Concern has been expressed  that new kinds of nanofibres being made by nanotechnology industries might pose  a risk because they have a similar shape to asbestos.’

Silver nanofibres of varying lengths were  injected into the lungs of mice.

Those larger than five micrometres, or  five-thousandths of a millimetre, tended to become lodged in the lungs and cause  inflammation. The smaller ones were cleared from the lungs.

Prof Donaldson said: ‘We knew that long  fibres, compared with shorter fibres, could cause tumours, but until now we did  not know the cut-off length at which this happened.

Anyone for tennis? Dangerous nanofibres are used in the manufacturing of sports equipment, such as tennis racquetsAnyone for tennis? Dangerous nanofibres are used in the  manufacturing of sports equipment, such as tennis racquets


‘Knowing the length beyond which the tiny  fibres can cause disease is important in ensuring that safe fibres are made in  the future as well as helping to understand the current risk from asbestos and  other fibres.’

Professor Stephen Spiro, from the British  Lung Foundation, said cases of mesothelioma had almost quadrupled in the past 30  years because of asbestos.

He added: ‘This research is particularly  interesting as it gives us an indication of the size of fibre that might lead to  mesothelioma if inhaled.

‘If confirmed by subsequent studies, this  minimum fibre length can be cited in industry guidelines to help ensure people  are not exposed to the sorts of fibres that may lead to such deadly  diseases.

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