HONG KONG, Aug 19 (Reuters) - Seven young Chinese women suffered permanent lung damage and two of them later died after working for months without proper protection in a paint factory using nanoparticles, Chinese researchers reported.
Nanotechnology, or the science of the extremely tiny, is an important industry. One nanometre is one-billionth of a metre while nanoparticles measure between 1 to 100 nanometres.
Apart from medicine, it is used in products like sporting goods, tyres and electronics and has a projected annual market of around US$1 trillion by 2015.
Nanotechnology is also used in sunscreen, cosmetics, food packaging, clothing, disinfectants, household appliances, surface coatings, paints and outdoor furniture varnishes.
This is the first time the dangers of nanotechnology have been documented in humans, although animal studies in the past have shown it resulted in lung damage in rats.
"These cases arouse concern that long term exposure to nanoparticles without protective measures may be related to serious damage to human lungs," wrote the researchers.
"Their tiny diameter means that they can penetrate the body's natural barriers, particularly through contact with damaged skin or by inhalation or ingestion."
In an article in the European Respiratory Journal, they said the seven women had worked for between five to 13 months in a factory spraying paint on polystyrene boards before they fell ill with breathing difficulties and rashes on their faces and arms.
The women breathed in fumes and smoke which contained nanoparticles while working in the factory, the scientists said.
"The generation of smoke at the workplace when the polystyrene board is heated and dried may indicate the formation of a condensation aerosol, containing nanoparticles," they wrote.
The research team was led by Yuguo Song from the occupational disease and clinical toxicology department at Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing.
According to the paper, doctors found the women had excess fluids in the cavities surrounding their lungs and hearts, conditions that impair breathing and heart function.
Closer examination of their lung tissues and fluids revealed nanoparticles measuring about 30 nanometres in diameter -- matching nanoparticles that health protection officials later found in materials used in the factory where the women worked.
Two of the women died within two years of working in that factory. The condition of the other five women has not improved even though they are no longer handling such materials.
It is impossible to remove nanoparticles once they penetrate lung cells, wrote the lead researcher Song.
Allen Chan, a chemical pathologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong not connected to the study, said the findings were significant.
"These findings are important because they provide concrete evidence that these materials are harmful and protection must be given to workers," he told Reuters. (Editing by Sugita Katyal)
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