Did Chinese Factory Workers Die From Inhaling Nanoparticles?

By Allison Bond | August 19, 2009 5:36 pm

nanoparticleIn the first known case that appears to link nanoparticles to health problems in humans, seven women fell ill after working with paint containing the particles at a factory in China, and two later died, according to an article in the European Respiratory Journal. However, some other experts debate the paper’s conclusions, saying that more mundane toxic materials are to blame.

The women developed itchy eruptions on their arms and faces, along with breathing problems, after working without proper protection at a factory producing paint that contains nanoparticles, which can be as tiny as one-billionth of a meter, or one nanometer. The women were all found to have ball-like collections of immune cells in the lining of the lung that form when the immune system is unable to remove a foreign body. They also had excessive, discoloured fluid in the lung lining. Particles around 30 nanometres in diameter were found in lung fluid and tissue [Nature News]. Sporadically used cotton gauze masks were the only protection the women wore during the five to 13 months they worked spraying paint on polystyrene boards in an unventilated room, and it’s likely they breathed in smoke and fumes. Once the factory was closed, no additional workers fell ill.

Although there is no way to be sure that the workers’ health problems stemmed from contact with nanoparticles, the researcher team that conducted the investigation says that “It is clear that the symptoms, the examination results and the progress of the disease in our patients differ markedly from respiratory pathologies induced by paint inhalation” [Telegraph]. Laboratory tests have shown that nanoparticles can damage rats’ lungs, but this is the first time that researchers have claimed to have found proof that nanotechnology threatens human health.

However, not everyone agrees that the case is closed. Respiratory toxicologist Ken Donaldson doubts that nanoparticles are to blame. He says the symptoms are more typical of chemical exposure. “I don’t doubt that nanoparticles were present, but that does not mean they were the main arbiters,” he says. Donaldson says that the plastic material the patients worked with is the more likely culprit [Nature News].

All the researchers agree that further studies must be done to understand whether these tiny particles pose a danger due to their ability to slip through skin and be easily eaten or inhaled. Despite the uncertainty about nano-risks, nanotechnology is increasingly being used in the manufacture of commercial products like sunscreen, cosmetics, food packaging, clothing, disinfectants, household appliances, surface coatings, paints and outdoor furniture varnishes [Reuters]. Just today, several consumer advocacy and environmental groups issued a report noting that the nanoparticle-containing sunscreens have not been shown to have any additional benefits, and could pose potential risks.

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Image: flickr / TheAlieness

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Technology
MORE ABOUT: nanotechnology, toxins
  • http://2020science.org Andrew Maynard

    This was a tragic case which was probably more to blame on poor work practices than nanoparticles. But at the same time it is bound to cause people to ask tough questions about how safe “nanoparticles” and – and how to avoid potential health impacts.

    More information on the study and its relevance can be found at: http://2020science.org/2009/08/18/new-study-seeks-to-link-seven-cases-of-ocupational-lung-disease-with-nanoparticles-and-nanotechnology/

  • http://clubneko.net robot makes music

    I’ll have to agree with Andrew – at this point, people die of crazy things in Chinese factories *all* *the* *time*.

    It’s quite possible the nanoparticles became lodged in the immune system cells that were present as a response to the other toxic chemicals those poor women were inhaling.

    First: A plastic gauze mask does both jack and squat to protect one from aerosol toxicity. Don’t believe me? http://www.homedepot.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/ProductDisplay?storeId=10051&productId=100565510&langId=-1&catalogId=10053

    You need one of those expensive painter’s respirators that has one-time-use-only carbon filters on the inlet.

    They were breathing paint and other chemicals – a possible cause for the discoloration of lung fluid?


    We should proceed *very* cautiously with nanotech in products. Why? Because nano is a buzzword, and unfortunately in our society, marketing with buzzwords is very effective. Claim nano-anything magic in your product, and people will buy it.

    On the third hand (I’ll need to borrow someone’s) it’s great to see people start using the word nano, even if they don’t know what it really means, because maybe it’ll be a gateway to familiarizing people with the metric system of measurements, instead of the current inane system we all work with.

  • chris

    I suppose this is more obvious to some, but in this case they’re talking about paint that was designed with a very small molecular structure?

  • ben Breyers

    For a scientific magazine, there are a lot of disclaimers and speculation in this article.

    Karaoke Robot- I like inch worms and going that extra mile. I like eating pound cake, and I dream about owning a few acres of land someday. It only takes an ounce of compassion to see beauty in a gallon of ice cream.

  • Christina Viering

    You have to take precautions when working with potentially hazardous airbourne particles. As we know now, it can take years for diseases like cancer to show up after exposure.

  • http://iconnanoblog.blogspot.com Kristen Kulinowski

    Let’s be careful before we lump all nanoparticles together in the same class. We don’t even know at this point what type of nanoparticles were found in the lungs and whether there are corresponding animal toxicity studies on the same types. While the sunscreen report was issued on the same day, the paper provides no evidence that nanoparticles of titania or zinc oxide that are found in some sunscreens, have anything to do with this case. Likewise, “nanotechnology” is a broad set of disciplines and technologies only some of which have to do with nanoparticles. We cannot rule out that these nanoparticles might have been produced by the spraying or heating process and therefore not be “nanotechnology” at all. More insights can be found at http://iconnanoblog.blogspot.com/2009/08/physicians-link-worker-illness-to.html

  • Ruggy

    Are all nanomaterials presumed safe until proven deadly? Or just this one?


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