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Nanoparticles have been blamed for two deaths at a Chinese factory, in a report that claims to be the first to document human disease caused by the particles.

The study — published in the European Respiratory Journal — describes seven women who fell ill after working in a printing factory in China, two of whom later died. All had symptoms indicating that their immune systems could not remove foreign objects from their lungs and had large amounts of fluid in the lung linings.

The study, which has fuelled debate over the health risks of nanotechnology, says the women inhaled fumes generated by heating polystyrene boards covered with a plastic paste to high temperatures. Their workroom had no functioning ventilation system and they wore face masks only occasionally.

Particles of around 30 nanometres in size were found in the women's lungs and also in the plastic paste and a broken ventilation shaft in the workroom.

"It is obvious the disease is not due to microparticles or vapours because the pulmonary epithelial cells are full of nanoparticles," says Yuguo Song, lead author and clinical toxicologist at the Beijing Chaoyang Hospital.

But while some say the symptoms are "similar" to those observed in animals exposed to nanoparticles, others doubt nanoparticles' role.

Anthony Seaton, emeritus professor in environmental and occupational medicine at the University of Aberdeen, United Kingdom, says the study doesn't conclusively show that the cause was nanoparticles. Instead he describes the case as an example of a "total failure in health and safety procedures".

Link to full article in Nature