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Quiet So Far: A Muted Response to Allegations of the First Human Fatalities Linked to Nanoparticles

January 2010

Citation: 40 ELR 10007

Issue: 1

Author: Tracy D. Hester

Like the apocryphal dog that didn't bark, sometimes the most telling reaction is the one that doesn't happen at all.

In late August 2009, the European Respiratory Journal quietly circulated an embargoed study with potentially explosive news for nanotechnology: a team of doctors at Beijing Chaoyang Hospital had allegedly documented the first human fatalities linked to workplace exposure to nanoscale materials. The study reported that seven young Chinese women had suffered serious lung injuries after they inhaled fumes from polystyrene boards that were coated with a polyacrylate esther paste and then heated to 75-100 degrees Celsius. This paste contained particles that were 30 nanometers in diameter. The workroom had one door and no windows, and that door remained closed to keep the room warm. The room's ventilation unit had broken down five months before the workers began to suffer symptoms, and the workers themselves wore only cotton gauze masks on an "occasional basis."

The seven women all had pleural granulomas (small nodules of inflamed immunological cells), and their lungs contained excessive amounts of discolored fluid. Two of these women later died from their injuries. The embargoed report reflected the researchers' careful efforts to confirm the presence of nanoscale parties in the polyacrylate esther paste, in the workplace equipment, and in the lung fluid and cytoplasm of the victims' lung cells. It also pointed to laboratory studies where exposure to nanoparticles had caused similar injuries in mammals.

Tracy D. Hester is a partner in the Houston, Texas, office of Bracewell & Giuliani LLP.

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