Carbon nanotubes (rods) and nanoparticles (black clumps) found inside a lung cell vacuole (left) are similar to those found in vehicle exhaust in tailpipes of cars in Paris (right) (credit: Fathi Moussa/Paris-Saclay University)
Carbon nanotubes, possibly from cars, are ubiquitous, found even in ice cores --- we may all have them in our lungs, say Rice scientists
Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) have been found in cells extracted from the airways of Parisian children under routine treatment for asthma, according to a report in the journal EBioMedicine (open access) by scientists in France and at Rice University.
The cells were taken from 69 randomly selected asthma patients aged 2 to 17 who underwent routine fiber-optic bronchoscopies as part of their treatment. The researchers analyzed particulate matter found in the alveolar macrophage cells (also known as dust cells), which help stop foreign materials like particles and bacteria from entering the lungs.
The study partially answers the question of what makes up the black material inside alveolar macrophages, the original focus of the study. The researchers found single-walled and multiwalled carbon nanotubes and amorphous carbon among the cells.
The nanotube aggregates in the cells ranged in size from 10 to 60 nanometers in diameter and up to several hundred nanometers in length, small enough that optical microscopes would not have been able to identify them in samples from former patients. The new study used more sophisticated tools, including high-resolution transmission electron microscopy, X-ray spectroscopy, Raman spectroscopy, and near-infrared fluorescence microscopy to definitively identify them in the cells and in the environmental samples.
“The concentrations of nanotubes are so low in these samples that it’s hard to believe they would cause asthma, but you never know,” said Rice chemist Lon Wilson, a corresponding author of the paper. “What surprised me the most was that carbon nanotubes were the major component of the carbonaceous pollution we found in the samples.”
The study notes but does not make definitive conclusions about the controversial proposition that carbon nanotube fibers may act like asbestos, a proven carcinogen. But the authors did note that “long carbon nanotubes and large aggregates of short ones can induce a granulomatous (inflammation) reaction.”
The researchers also suggested previous studies that link the carbon content of airway macrophages and the decline of lung function should be reconsidered in light of the new findings. The researchers also suggested that the large surface areas of nanotubes and their ability to adhere to substances may make them effective carriers for other pollutants.
Carbon nanotubes from forest fires and cars?
However, similar nanotubes have been found in samples from the exhaust pipes of Paris vehicles, in dust gathered from various places around the city, in spider webs in India, and even in ice cores, the paper notes.
“We know that carbon nanoparticles are found in nature,” Wilson said, noting that round fullerene (C60) molecules are commonly produced by volcanoes, forest fires, and other combustion of carbon materials. “All you need is a little catalysis to make carbon nanotubes instead of fullerenes.”
A car’s catalytic converter, which turns toxic carbon monoxide into safer emissions, bears at least a passing resemblance to the Rice-invented high-pressure carbon monoxide, or HiPco, process to make carbon nanotubes, he said. “So it is not a big surprise, when you think about it,” Wilson said.
“Based on our discovery of CNTs in tailpipes, we propose that the catalytic converters of the automobiles are manufacturing carbon nanotubes, Wilson told KurzweilAI. “However, we have not actually proven that.”
We are all carbon-nanotube bearers now
For ethical reasons, no cells from healthy patients were analyzed, but because nanotubes were found in all of the samples, the study led the researchers to conclude that carbon nanotubes are likely to be found in everybody.
“It’s kind of ironic. In our laboratory, working with carbon nanotubes, we wear facemasks to prevent exactly what we’re seeing in these samples, yet everyone walking around out there in the world probably has at least a small concentration of carbon nanotubes in their lungs,” he said.
The study followed one released by Rice and Baylor College of Medicine earlier this month with the similar goal of analyzing the black substance found in the lungs of smokers who died of emphysema. That study found carbon black nanoparticles that were the product of the incomplete combustion of such organic material as tobacco.
Co-authors are from Paris-Saclay University, the Paediatric Pulmonology and Allergy Center and the Department of Anatomo-Pathology of the Groupe hospitalier La Roche-Guyon, and Paris Diderot University. The Welch Foundation partially supported the research.
Abstract of Anthropogenic Carbon Nanotubes Found in the Airways of Parisian Children
Compelling evidence shows that fine particulate matters (PM) from air pollution penetrate lower airways and are associated with adverse health effects even within concentrations below those recommended by the WHO. A paper reported a dose-dependent link between carbon content in alveolar macrophages (assessed only by optical microscopy) and the decline in lung function. However, to the best of our knowledge, PM had never been accurately characterized inside human lung cells and the most responsible components of the particulate mix are still unknown. On another hand carbon nanotubes (CNTs) from natural and anthropogenic sources might be an important component of PM in both indoor and outdoor air.
We used high-resolution transmission electron microscopy and energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy to characterize PM present in broncho-alveolar lavage-fluids (n = 64) and inside lung cells (n = 5 patients) of asthmatic children. We show that inhaled PM mostly consist of CNTs. These CNTs are present in all examined samples and they are similar to those we found in dusts and vehicle exhausts collected in Paris, as well as to those previously characterized in ambient air in the USA, in spider webs in India, and in ice core. These results strongly suggest that humans are routinely exposed to CNTs.