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The Tiniest Particles that May be a Threat as Bad as Asbestos

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Health Issues page and our Nanotechnology page.

Europe is failing to control a burgeoning industry in microscopic materials, prompting claims that it has failed to heed the lessons from millions of asbestos deaths, according to a hard-hitting new report. Despite early warnings of the damage some nanomaterials could cause, EU governments are still reacting too slowly to signs of potentially deadly environmental hazards.

Nanomaterials - tiny particles as small as a billionth of a metre - are not currently governed by any regulations specific to them in Britain or the EU, despite concern about the possible effect some may have on health.

A major study published by the European Environment Agency (EEA) last week says European governments - including the UK's - are "paralysed by analysis" and failing to act: "Twenty years have elapsed since first indications of nanomaterial harm were published", it said, "and in the intervening time an increasing body of literature has been developed on how nanomaterials interact with cells, mammals and aquatic organisms. Yet many governments still call for more information as a substitute for action."

Carbon nanotubes - tiny pieces of carbon used to strengthen all sorts of materials - have been singled out for their potential to cause health problems similar to asbestos if inhaled. Research shows that long carbon nanotubes - which are similar in shape to asbestos fibres - cause precancerous growths on the lungs in the same way as asbestos when tested on mice.

Nanosilver, whose antibacterial properties mean it is used in everything from disinfectant to socks, was also highlighted in the report, which says it might damage the environment if it gets into the water system. Early studies suggest that nanosilver in water harms the health and fertility of fish and algae, which could damage ecosystems.