Understanding the toxicity of carbon nanotubes

Ying Liu, Yuliang Zhao, Baoyun Sun, Chunying Chen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

609 Scopus citations


Because of their unique physical, chemical, electrical, and mechanical properties, carbon nanotubes (CNTs) have attracted a great deal of research interest and have many potential applications. As large-scale production and application of CNTs increases, the general population is more likely to be exposed to CNTs either directly or indirectly, which has prompted considerable attention about human health and safety issues related to CNTs. Although considerable experimental data related to CNT toxicity at the molecular, cellular, and whole animal levels have been published, the results are often conflicting. Therefore, a systematic understanding of CNT toxicity is needed but has not yet been developed.In this Account, we highlight recent investigations into the basis of CNT toxicity carried out by our team and by other laboratories. We focus on several important factors that explain the disparities in the experimental results of nanotoxicity, such as impurities, amorphous carbon, surface charge, shape, length, agglomeration, and layer numbers. The exposure routes, including inhalation, intravenous injection, or dermal or oral exposure, can also influence the in vivo behavior and fate of CNTs. The underlying mechanisms of CNT toxicity include oxidative stress, inflammatory responses, malignant transformation, DNA damage and mutation (errors in chromosome number as well as disruption of the mitotic spindle), the formation of granulomas, and interstitial fibrosis. These findings provide useful insights for de novo design and safe application of carbon nanotubes and their risk assessment to human health.To obtain reproducible and accurate results, researchers must establish standards and reliable detection methods, use standard CNT samples as a reference control, and study the impact of various factors systematically. In addition, researchers need to examine multiple types of CNTs, different cell lines and animal species, multidimensional evaluation methods, and exposure conditions. To make results comparable among different institutions and countries, researchers need to standardize choices in toxicity testing such as that of cell line, animal species, and exposure conditions. The knowledge presented here should lead to a better understanding of the key factors that can influence CNT toxicity so that their unwanted toxicity might be avoided.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)702-713
Number of pages12
JournalAccounts of Chemical Research
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 19 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Chemistry(all)


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