The amazing properties of this wonder composite ensured that widespread adoption and utilisation of carbon fibre was quick, and dominating. It’s fair to say that in the past decade or so that few new materials that have impacted the world quite like carbon fibre.
These days the aerospace, marine, and automotive industries heavily use the material. They are creating all manner of exciting and advanced designs that would not be possible without the impressive strength to weight ratio that has made the material so famous.
However, the story of carbon fibre doesn’t stop there, adoption is becoming more and more widespread as manufacturing processes improve and material costs come down. With each passing year more and more industries are getting involved, for example, carbon fibre can now be found reasonably easily in just about all sports equipment and is making its way into the furniture sector.
So this is all good news, right?
Well, yes, kind of. But there are potential downsides.
The massive spike in carbon fibre utilisation inevitably means that more and more professionals in the manufacturing industries are working with the material. Each day countless thousands of workers are sanding, cutting, and shaping carbon fibre – which could have potentially lethal consequences.
Why Is Carbon Fibre Potentially Dangerous?
It should come as no surprise to you to learn that carbon fibre is made up of countless small individual fibrous strands that are solidified through the use of a resin. When these fibres are agitated they become respirable (especially when sanded). You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand that regularly inhaling this stuff isn’t exactly going to please your doctor.
But just how bad is it?
The honest truth of the matter is that we can’t conclusively say at the moment. The huge increase in numbers of people working with the material has spawned a massive research drive that is trying to figure out the potential risks. However, there’s a growing number of researchers that think carbon fibre could be “the new asbestos”.
The UK's Medical Research Council recently published this useful article on Risks Associated With Carbon Nanotubes.
The New Asbestos
Asbestos has claimed the lives of countless people who handled the material before the risks were fully known. Many people think that the huge human cost of neglecting to fully understand the consequences of working with asbestos without protection was primarily responsible for kicking workplace health and safety up a gear or two.
As you may already know, the chemical compounds in asbestos are not carcinogenic themselves. Like carbon fibre, it’s a material made up of countless small fibrous strands that are highly respirable. We knew that the compounds in asbestos were not particularly carcinogenic back in the day, but we didn’t know what the consequences resulting from the shape and size of the fibres were.
When asbestos is inhaled it manages to make its way deep down into your lungs. It will find a way into the deepest darkest sections and attach itself there.
Now, people have been inhaling dust of some kind or another for hundreds of thousands of years. Because of this time scale evolution has sorted us out. It has enabled our bodies to remove pretty much any kind of dust from our lungs that you can find in the natural world.
The problem is, asbestos is not something evolution was exposed to, it’s not found naturally…
And this causes problems.
Our bodies don’t know that asbestos is different to other kinds of dust, so it tries to remove it in the same way. This is where the problems start.
Attempts are made to remove the asbestos dust, but due to the shape and size of the fibres, they simply won't budge. This causes scarring inside the lungs and over time it can lead to asbestosis, lung cancer, and death.
There are an alarming amount of similarities between asbestos and carbon fibre dust, but there are notable differences too. If you’ve not been protecting yourself so far it’s probably a little bit premature to start panicking.
We can’t say for sure that carbon fibre is going to cause a widespread health disaster in a decade or so, but we can’t say that it won't either.
However, we do know that inhaling carbon fibre dust is harmful – especially when you work with it regularly. Just because it might not be as bad as asbestos doesn’t mean that it’s safe. The known potential health risks (even without asbestos style issues) are already severe enough to warrant protection.
But Wait, It Gets Worse!
Just to add a happy cherry on top to this already exceptionally joyful article, we want to talk a little bit about the risks associated with the newest hybrid resins that are being used to bind the material. In a bid to improve production speeds of the carbon composites, new hybrid resins are being adopted some of which could pose further health risks.
Carbon nanotubes are being used more and more these days to further enhance the already impressive properties of carbon fibre. While they still are utilised in a statistically small amount of carbon fibre applications – their adoption is set to be widespread in the not too distant future.
Carbon nanotubes have a remarkably similar shape and size to asbestos fibres and are causing some researchers and doctors to raise the alarm. There is a very good chance that conditions similar to asbestosis can be caused by inhaling carbon nanotubes, and if you’re working with them you should take adequate precautions immediately.
Again, we don’t know for sure that carbon nanotubes are going to cause potentially fatal conditions – there’s still some ambiguity. However, researchers seem to be a lot more worried about them than they are about carbon fibre, which in itself should be a wakeup call for people currently working with them without proper respiratory protection.
As I mentioned, there is some serious research being conducted so you will no doubt be hearing of some solid results in the coming months.
The best advice anyone can give you right now is that from this moment forward you should always utilise adequate protection when working with either of the materials.
It’s never too late to start.