New Jersey Lawyer News
CARBON NANOTUBES: A Closer Look at Miracle Technology's Potential Side Effects
What is one billionth of a meter wide, made from carbon, is as strong as steel but as flexible as plastic, conducts electricity and heat as well or better than most other conductors, and even emits light? No, not some science fiction gadget from the planet Krypton. The answer is, Nanotubes.
Nanotubes are a fairly recent, ingenious technology filled with much promise of improving consumers’ lives, aiding industry, and advancing sciences such as medicine, aerospace engineering, telecommunications, and many other fields. The development and practical applications of nanotubes dates back to 2001. But only now are we are just beginning to learn of the possible side effects of exposure to this “miracle” technology. Increasingly, scientific researchers are now comparing nanotubes to being as harmful as asbestos.
“Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are made from sheets of graphite and are formed into cylinders. These nanotubes are about a nanometer or one billionth of a meter wide.” (Scientific American 2008) Nanotubes are made in one of two ways: one method involves the use of laser ablation; the other involves the application of modified gas. Since both methods involve exposure to potentially harmful chemicals, they are supposed to be performed in laboratories under the care of trained individuals.
Nanotubes are used today in everyday products which most consumers may not even realize. Television screens, radios, cell phones, baseball bats, computer chips, various types of electronic equipment, certain clothing material, and some microscopic sized medical devices are made from carbon nanotubes. Nanotubes can also be used as construction material. Because of the useful properties of nanotubes, the list of their possible uses is literally endless.
The use of nanotubes in medical sciences has become a controversial topic because the health risks and side effects of nanotubes on humans are, at this point, conclusively unknown. Some studies declare that nanotubes may be helpful in eventually curing cancer; however, others warn that nanotubes may cause cancer cells and tumors. Several scientific researchers reached the latter conclusion after exposing lab mice to carbon nanotubes (CNTs) and discovered that the mice’s body cavities became inflamed and formed lesions. (Scientific American; Technology Review; Journal of Toxicological Sciences 2008)
Scientists are now comparing the dangers of carbon nanotubes to those of asbestos. According to their research, carbon nanotubes look and behave like asbestos fibers, which are known to cause mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer of the membrane lining of internal organs, particularly in the lungs. This particular cancer can take up to 30 to 40 years to appear or manifest following exposure, says Andrew Maynard, co-author of a study led by Queen’s Medical Research Institute on carbon nanotubes. (Scientific American) This period between the time of exposure to asbestos and the development or manifestation of cancer is known as the latency period. There are several ways carbon nanotubes can easily enter the human body due to their microscopic size. Other than being injected into the body for a medical purpose, nanotubes can be inhaled through breathing passages and can even pierce through your skin painlessly. Their airborne ability is what poses the greatest risk for workers who handle them in manufacturing our everyday products, such as televisions, radios, athletic equipment and electronic devices. Since carbon nanotubes appear to present the greatest risk after being inhaled, the evolving scientific research suggests that the organ most immediately affected are the lungs, as was shown in the mice involved in the Queens Medical study. Carbon nanotubes can become airborne in several ways, most logically in environments involving the manufacturing of carbon nanotubes themselves or products in which nanotubes are components. For this reason, scientific researchers believe that factory workers are at greatest risk from carbon nanotubes. Although not all of the complications and side effects that can arise from breathing in and ingesting nanotubes are known today, researchers believe that, similar to asbestos, there will soon be more discoveries of the serious health consequences of nanotubes and, that too in great numbers.
Asbestos related illnesses can take decades to manifest, sometimes far in time and place from the actual exposure. Mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis are the three most prevalent diseases caused by inhaling asbestos. It is also the suspected cause of other lung conditions and cancers. Typical victims of asbestos injury are miners, workers in factories producing asbestos containing products or in industries where equipment and material contain high levels of asbestos, such as car mechanics, railroad employees, and construction workers are exposed to asbestos fibers that become airborne or friable and are inhaled, exposing the lungs to illness. The health concerns for those working with nanotubes appear strikingly similar.
There have been more than 730,000 asbestos-related injury claims in the United States. Many of these cases are product liability cases, most commonly premised on claims of negligence and strict products liability. There have also been hundreds of thousands of workers' compensation claims brought by workers made ill from their exposure to asbestos in the workplace. With regard to workers and consumers who become ill because of exposure to nanotubes, many now believe that the numbers of lawsuits and workers compensation claims that may result will be staggering.
Workers Compensation is a form of insurance provided to most employees. As per this insurance, if someone gets sick or hurt on the job, the employer is legally required to pay workers’ compensation benefits, including but not limited to, medical benefits, temporary and permanent disability benefits, and death benefits.
Injury or illness that can be shown to be caused by or made worse through a worker’s job is compensable in New Jersey. There is no specific list of covered illnesses—all work-related illnesses are potentially covered. Some illnesses or conditions found to be work-related include asthma, asbestosis, mesothelioma or other lung diseases, hepatitis, HIV, TB, skin diseases, tumors, heat stroke or heat exhaustion, frostbite, hearing loss and poisoning from long or short term exposure to toxins, among many other conditions.
Often, when a worker becomes ill from exposure to a dangerous substance like asbestos, he or she may bring claims for workers compensation benefits against his employer as well as claims for compensatory (and sometimes punitive) damages against the party who manufactured or distributed the asbestos-containing component or object causing his or her illness. Such claims are often referred to as mass torts as they involve many claimants with similar claims or toxic torts because the claims are based on exposure to toxic or harmful substances like asbestos, chemicals, and micro-organisms. Similarly, researchers today feel that nanotubes may also be the basis for mass tort claims and toxic tort claims.
Researchers and analysts have been calling on the federal government to fund a study of the potential health risks of carbon nanotubes—the building blocks of nanotechnology. Reports such as Nature Nanotechnology have been published suggesting all the harmful risks associated with carbon nanotubes. The Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.), as well as the National Center for Environmental Research, has also been actively investigating the potential uses and harmful risks of such new nanotechnology.
Asbestos was once widely believed to be a miracle substance because of its seemingly endless applications for the improvement of mankind. Everything from clothing, housing and mechanical insulation, building materials like shingles and dry wall, paint, fire retardant, cigarette filters, pipe materials and even pot holders, asbestos at one time appeared nearly universal as a component to make a final product more efficient, resilient or stronger. It is telling that these accolades are being echoed today by proponents of nanotubes and their limitless technological applications. Hopefully, the companies, scientists, engineers and inventors utilizing nanotube technology will place just as much emphasis on successfully protecting workers and consumers from adverse health risks as they are in developing profitable applications of this microscopic wonder.
In every jurisdiction, a lawsuit premised upon a workplace injury, negligence, a defective product or products liability must be filed within a certain time frame, or statute of limitation, or such a claim will be barred forever. In New Jersey, such lawsuits must be filed within two (2) years from the date of injury or two years from the date on which the Plaintiff learns or should have learned through the exercise of reasonable diligence or investigation that his or her injury was caused by an exposure to a toxic substance, defective product or due to the negligence of another party. For workers injured or who become ill in the line of work, generally, they must file a claim petition with the New Jersey Division of Workers Compensation within 2 (two) years of their injury or discovery of an illness caused by an exposure at work. If filed even one day too late beyond the applicable statute of limitations, the unfortunate victim's claims will be dismissed as untimely. Because of the many complexities involved in the proper investigation and prosecution of any cases alleging personal injury or illness, consumers and workers seriously injured at work, due to another’s negligence, or as a result of a product they believe may be defective should consult with an experienced trial lawyer as soon as possible. There are many articles published on the Internet concerning consumer rights and personal injury litigation, however, there is certainly no substitute for a consultation about your rights and potential remedies with an experienced, qualified attorney.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only. This article is not intended to be a substitute for a consultation with an experienced lawyer. If you would like a free consultation with one of the trial lawyers at Shapiro & Sternlieb, LLC, please call 732-617-8050 or toll free 888-432-4LAW (4529). To learn more about Shapiro & Sternlieb, LLC or to read about other areas of interest to consumers, please visit us at www.shapirosternlieb.com.