MU Study: Carbon nanotubes are toxic to aquatic animals

Aug 24, 2012

When fresh water animals, such as worms and mussels, were exposed to water loaded with carbon nanotubes, their health suffered, according to a new study published in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. In fact, the bottom-dwelling critters didn’t grow as quickly and they didn’t survive as long as their counterparts living in cleaner water.

Carbon nanotubes are a microscopic material used for its strength and conducting ability in anything from golf clubs to medical devices. In the study, researchers noticed all of the organisms exposed to nanotubes were coated in them. Some animals even ingested them.

That health detriment wasn’t caused by the nanotube itself, but by toxic chemicals that clung to it from the manufacturing process to chemically create it. Nickel, cobalt and chromium are just a few of those toxic metals.

Now, this doesn’t mean throwing your nine iron into the course pond is going to contaminate the water. For the purpose of this study, the aquatic environment did contain a high concentration of nanotubes at about 1 percent.

Further research still needs to be done to examine exactly how the nanotubes breakdown and, more importantly, how to manufacture them without the hitchhiking metals, according to study author Baolin Deng, a professor of engineering at the University of Missouri.

"There’s a great promise for nanotechnology (and) nanomaterials here," he tells KBIA. "But at the same time, we need to look at the potential environmental impact (and) health impact so there’s no surprise coming in the future.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency funded the study.