It has been described as a “miracle material” and its inventors received the Nobel Prize, but there are already some studies that warn about the potential danger of handling graphene both for human health and for the environment due to the possible risks of hypothetical contamination.
Flexible, ultra-thin, super-resistant, self-healing, capable of conducting electric currents… it is good for practically everything and once industry starts to apply it, it is possible that it will change everything around us as much as plastic did in the middle of the last century. But a couple of studies from prestigious universities call for caution in the handling of graphene, since such a unique material is not free of risks for humans and the environment.
First, a group of biologists, engineers and scientists specialized in the study of materials, all belonging to the University of Browb, have discovered a potential risk of toxicity to human cells of graphene. In another study, a team from the Riverside Bourns School of Engineering at the University of California has detected the possible harm of interaction with the ecosystem from the oxidation of graphene nanoparticles, especially their polluting role if they come into contact with surface or groundwater.
It is a material composed of a layer of carbon the thickness of an atom. It is incredibly light but at the same time incredibly resistant, flexible and capable of conducting electrical charges and temperature perfectly. It has only been 10 years since laboratories have been able to isolate graphene and since then the industry has been trying to transform it into a material that can offer all the potential it seems to offer in commercial uses and applications, although it seems that not so much money and research effort has been put into investigating its possible negative effects.
Precisely because of the nature of its structure, tremendously sharp (remember, one atom thick) and highly resistant are the characteristics that make it potentially dangerous in contact with human cells as they are susceptible to literally section human cell membranes (and those of other living beings, of course) with the consequent damage to the lungs (if inhaled) or skin (by contact). A medical implant coated with graphene could be disastrous if the coating were to peel off, causing carnage on a cellular scale.
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As for the oxidation of graphene nanoparticles, in contact with groundwater where there is little organic matter and the water has high levels of hardness, these nanoparticles could become unstable and precipitate to the bottom of the reservoirs. On the other hand, in surface waters with a higher presence of organic matter, the graphene oxide nanoparticles would remain more stable and would tend to move along with the subsurface currents and could cause serious damage of the kind mentioned above, precisely because of their remarkable resistance and extreme thinness.
For the time being, material handling safety authorities warn of the need for caution in handling graphene because of the potential risk of irritation to skin, eyes and mucous membranes, as well as the danger of inhalation and ingestion.