Seven female employees of a polyacrylic coating facility in Beijing, China have been diagnosed with severe lung disease. The root cause, as described in a case report published in the European Respiratory Journal, is inhaled nanoparticles present in the polystyrene boards that the women worked with on a daily basis.
All seven women were admitted to the hospital between January 2007 and April 2008 for shortness of breath. Lab tests confirmed a myriad of other side effects, including hypoxemia (low oxygen saturation in the blood), severe skin rash from constant itching and fluid in the thoracic cavity and heart. These symptoms proved life threatening, and two of the seven workers eventually died from their illness.
A myriad of medical tests eventually found the presence of nanoparticles (30 nm in diameter) present in each worker’s lungs. Toxic chemicals the women frequently worked with include n-butyl ester, di-tert-butyl peroxide, butonic acid and toluene.
Some experts hypothesize that the workers’ exposure could have been avoided had the Chinese plant installed proper ventilation systems and personal protective equipment had been provided.
Nanoparticles are particles less than 100 nanometers in diameter. Frequently, they are chemically altered compounds used to improve the properties of consumer products. For example, titanium oxide is used in sunscreen to improve transparency.
The topic of nanoparticles has been a heated source of debate recently. While the use of such particles has the potential to greatly improve a wide range of products, their long-term effects on human health have only just begun to be researched.
In previous studies, researchers have expressed concern for the ability of nanoparticles to behave much like asbestos fibers when inhaled. Asbestos is a naturally occurring fiber that, when breathed in, becomes lodged in the lungs. Asbestos is the sole known cause for mesothelioma, a rare type of lung cancer.