National Aeronautics and Space Administration


Date of this Version



Critical Reviews in Toxicology, 36:189–217, 2006


U.S. Government Work


Nanotechnology has emerged at the forefront of science research and technology development. Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are major building blocks of this new technology. They possess unique electrical, mechanical, and thermal properties, with potential wide applications in the electronics, computer, aerospace, and other industries. CNTs exist in two forms, single-wall (SWCNTs) and multi-wall (MWCNTs). They are manufactured predominately by electrical arc discharge, laser ablation and chemical vapor deposition processes; these processes involve thermally stripping carbon atoms off from carbon-bearing compounds. SWCNT formation requires catalytic metals. There has been a great concern that if CNTs, which are very light, enter the working environment as suspended particulate matter (PM) of respirable sizes, they could pose an occupational inhalation exposure hazard. Very recently, MWCNTs and other carbonaceous nanoparticles in fine (<2.5 μm) PM aggregates have been found in combustion streams of methane, propane, and natural-gas flames of typical stoves; indoor and outdoor fine PM samples were reported to contain significant fractions of MWCNTs. Here we review several rodent studies in which test dusts were administered intratracheally or intrapharyngeally to assess the pulmonary toxicity of manufactured CNTs, and a few in vitro studies to assess biomarkers of toxicity released in CNT-treated skin cell cultures. The results of the rodent studies collectively showed that regardless of the process by which CNTs were synthesized and the types and amounts of metals they contained, CNTs were capable of producing inflammation, epithelioid granulomas (microscopic nodules), fibrosis, and biochemical/toxicological changes in the lungs. Comparative toxicity studies in which mice were given equal weights of test materials showed that SWCNTs were more toxic than quartz, which is considered a serious occupational health hazard if it is chronically inhaled; ultrafine carbon black was shown to produce minimal lung responses. The differences in opinions of the investigators about the potential hazards of exposures to CNTs are discussed here. Presented here are also the possible mechanisms of CNT pathogenesis in the lung and the impact of residual metals and other impurities on the toxicological manifestations. The toxicological hazard assessment of potential human exposures to airborne CNTs and occupational exposure limits for these novel compounds are discussed in detail. Environmental fine PM is known to form mainly from combustion of fuels, and has been reported to be a major contributor to the induction of cardiopulmonary diseases by pollutants. Given that manufactured SWCNTs and MWCNTs were found to elicit pathological changes in the lungs, and SWCNTs (administered to the lungs of mice) were further shown to produce respiratory function impairments, retard bacterial clearance after bacterial inoculation, damage the mitochondrial DNA in aorta, increase the percent of aortic plaque, and induce atherosclerotic lesions in the brachiocephalic artery of the heart, it is speculated that exposure to combustion-generated MWCNTs in fine PM may play a significant role in air pollution-related cardiopulmonary diseases. Therefore, CNTs from manufactured and combustion sources in the environment could have adverse effects on human health.