Wonder-material graphene could be dangerous to humans and the environment


April 30, 2014

Jacob D Lanphere, a Ph.D. student at UC Riverside, holds a sample of graphene oxide

Jacob D Lanphere, a Ph.D. student at UC Riverside, holds a sample of graphene oxide

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I've been waiting for some time now to write a headline along the lines of "scientists discover thing that graphene is not amazing at" ... and here it is. Everybody’s favorite nanomaterial may have a plethora of near-magical properties, but as it turns out, it could also be bad for the environment – and bad for you, too.

It’s easy to get carried away when you start talking about graphene. Comprised of single atom thick layers of carbon, graphene is incredibly light, incredibly strong, extremely flexible and highly conductive both of heat and electricity. Its properties hold the promise of outright technological revolution in so many fields that it has been called a wonder material.

But it’s only been 10 years since graphene was first isolated in the laboratory, and as researchers and industries scramble to bring graphene out of the lab and into a vast range of commercial applications, far less money is being spent examining its potential negative effects.

Two recent studies give us a less than rosy angle. In the first, a team of biologists, engineers and material scientists at Brown University examined graphene’s potential toxicity in human cells. They found that the jagged edges of graphene nanoparticles, super sharp and super strong, easily pierced through cell membranes in human lung, skin and immune cells, suggesting the potential to do serious damage in humans and other animals.

"These materials can be inhaled unintentionally, or they may be intentionally injected or implanted as components of new biomedical technologies," said Robert Hurt, professor of engineering and one of the study’s authors. "So we want to understand how they interact with cells once inside the body."

Another study by a team from University of California, Riverside’s Bourns College of Engineering examined how graphene oxide nanoparticles might interact with the environment if they found their way into surface or ground water sources.

The team found that in groundwater sources, where there’s little organic material and the water has a higher degree of hardness, graphene oxide nanoparticles tended to become less stable and would eventually settle out or be removed in sub-surface environments.

But in surface water such as lakes or rivers, where there’s more organic material and less hardness, the particles stayed much more stable and showed a tendency to travel further, particularly under the surface.

So a spill of these kinds of nanoparticles would appear to have the potential to cause harm to organic matter, plants, fish, animals, and humans. The affected area could be quick to spread, and could take some time to become safe again.

"The situation today is similar to where we were with chemicals and pharmaceuticals 30 years ago," said the paper’s co-author Jacob D. Lanphere. "We just don’t know much about what happens when these engineered nanomaterials get into the ground or water. So we have to be proactive so we have the data available to promote sustainable applications of this technology in the future."

At this stage, the Material Safety Data Sheet governing the industrial use of graphene is incomplete. It’s listed as a potential irritant of skin and eyes, and potentially hazardous to breathe in or ingest. No information is available on whether it has carcinogenic effects or potential developmental toxicity.

But researchers from the first study point out that this is a material in its infancy, and as a man-made material, there are opportunities at this early stage to examine and understand the potential harmful properties of graphene and try to engineer them out. We’ve got a few years yet before graphene really starts being a big presence in our lives, so the challenge is set to work out how to make it as safe as possible for ourselves and our planet.

The Brown University research was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The UC Riverside paper was published in a special issue of the journal Environmental Engineering Science.

Sources: Brown University, UC Riverside

About the Author
Loz Blain Loz has been one of Gizmag's most versatile contributors since 2007. Joining the team as a motorcycle specialist, he has since covered everything from medical and military technology to aeronautics, music gear and historical artefacts. Since 2010 he's branched out into photography, video and audio production, and he remains the only Gizmag contributor willing to put his name to a sex toy review. A singer by night, he's often on the road with his a cappella band Suade. All articles by Loz Blain

So graphene could be harmful? show me a school kid that never licked a pencil, and that's graphene... Point made

Roger Hudson

@Roger H. - That's graphite, check again, no points here,


I was glad to see an article about the harmful effects something new may have on humans or the environment. We rarely get to see follow ups on new technology like this. We see new battery, circuits, energy and materials technologies that look promising but often the harmful details are not talked about or shared in the article. Thanks for the article Gizmag!


So many technologies are rushed out the door while scientists focus on the positive aspects... rarely do they ask: "Is this harmful?" The Romans thought they were geniuses with their plates, goblets, and utensils made from lead. Such a miraculous metal! So easy to shape and form... and cheap too... And, Agent Orange was a miracle herbicide at the time. So effective at clearing away vegetation. In retrospect (and after much research) it turned out that both of these ideas were really, really bad for human health. I'm waiting for the future research to show that holding 1W radio transmitters next to your head (i.e., cellphones) is also a really dumb idea that probably causes a slough of health problems. People will look at our society holding phones up to our head the way we look at the Romans eating with lead forks. Just because it's got useful properties doesn't mean that it's safe for human consumption.

Ken Dawson

Hopefully, more research will identify and solve suggested problems as they arise - I just hope peole are not ignored in the rush for profit from this new material. We (now) know all about the problems with asbestos, we do not need these worries with graphene 10-20 years down the track when half the original makers have disappeared from the marketplace with nobody to sue.

The Skud

Remember that asbestos was hailed as a miracle material? Turns out it kills pretty much everyone that comes in contact with it in a slow and horrible way sometimes 30 or more years later. Any company that doesn't full investigate graphene is asking for the billion dollar repercussions that asbestos had. Any nation more requiring thorough investigation of entirely new things / materials is asking for even greater burden; both economic and social. I'll let your imagination think up all the new miracle technologies we are rushing forward with due to their potential economic benefit without considering the longer term detriment.


Since pencil lead is graphite, isn't pencil lead dust basically graphene particles? Cause if so students, draftsmen and artists have been at the forefront of this "danger" for centuries.

Mark Keller

Let's be realistic, these dangers apply to all nano-materials not just graphene. Because of their size they have the ability to bypass the body's normal defenses with as yet unknown effects both short and long term.

A lot more caution is needed before they are rushed out into general use. I can remember as a young lad back in the 1950s seeing advertisements extolling the beneficial effects of a 'tonic water' containing radon salts; try selling that now!

Stuart Wilshaw

Graphene would appear to be capable of fulfilling many important roles in society, especially with regard to its electrical conductivity in the light of copper ores now down to between 2 and 5 percent.

One hopes that following the experience with asbestos, there are regulatory instruments in place to ensure protection from any possible long-term harm. However, if that is not the case, then perhaps there should be a levy raised on all sales of graphene that can be used to provide a compensation fund should any problem from its use manifest itself many years hence. The only obvious alternatives are to either place a ban on its use until proven safe, or to apply it and keep our fingers crossed. Neither is particularly attractive, to say the least.

Mel Tisdale

One should not compare asbestos with graphene. Former is naturally occurring while the latter is man made. The first led to health problems leading to death because of breathing in the fine fibers without proper precautions. Of course these were unknown hazards. At least with graphene we do have methods for studying its detrimental effects. After all is said and done we will still end up with some kind of disaster similar to thalidomide babies because of incomplete or incompetent testing and big profits !


Good to see man is starting to double check the mess they can do to itself & the environment if it's not careful. Didn't like the safe as possible part, we should just make things safe and advance the planet & tech that way. Wishful thinking maybe, but better than fixing disasters later.


I'd wondered about the potential dangers of this material. I'm no materials engineer, but it seems that any substance that is structurally stable at one atom thick has the potential to destroy things on contact at the cellular or molecular level.

Chris Reid

You don't hear much about the dangers of carbonfiber, but ask the EPA or First Responders to aviation accidents - it is treated the same as asbestos.

Martin Hone

All nano particles are hazardous to inhale or ingest.

It's only common sense to realize anything that small will get past our natural defenses and cause health problems.

Does anyone who disagrees with me want to volunteer to inhale and ingest graphene everyday for a month and prove me wrong?


Just another hazchem to add to the long long list


Perhaps it's time to adopt the precautionary principle and require proof of safety BEFORE it is used by industry? Europe will likely list as a SVHC (Substances of Very High Concern) on their REACH program. This forces manufactures to prove its safety prior to use.

But then again, Europe, as most other developed countries, has a vested interest and responsibility to maintaining their citizen's health through their public health care system..,

In the states, sickness and illness are a benefit for business and the GDP.


The most immediate thing that comes to mind is 'Diatomaceous Earth'. The minute particles are so small, jagged and sharp that it is used as an insect killer around the yard because it simply dismembers the small critters as they pass over and around this 'Earth' sprinkled about. I've wondered what would happen after accidentally breathing in or eating a small dusting of these minute skeletal marine fossils.



I always assumed that the dust was dangerous if inhaled but that does not mean that we should not use it it just means that we need to be careful in how we use it.


Much graphene is man made, but graphene also exists in nature. This is how it was first found.

The dangers of graphene will vary tremendously depending on its form. Graphene buried in semiconductors or other materials will not hurt us. Graphene in small particles dispersed in the air or water might have terrible effects.

As was pointed out above, nano particles of any composition are potentially harmful. Even nominally inert materials like gold become reactive at the right size.


Oh the irony, if the Health & Safety do gooders keep us here because they stop the space elevator being built and we get taken out by an asteroid or something. Plenty of particulates there..

Andre de Guerin

A few years ago , I predicted that the internal combustion engine will be banned for nanoparticle emission. I stand by that prediction. This emission has increased in modern times.


Asbestos has been mined for thousands of years. The Greeks commented on the fact of a strange disease of the prisoners and slaves that worked in the mines. We still did not check it out really until the 1970's (??).

Diatomaceous Earth actually has warnings by the CDC most concerning hazards from impurities, especially with natural (mined) diatomaceous earth. It is also a very old and effective treatment for various parasites of livestock by farmers and even sold for human consumption (no I will not consume it).

Let us investigate before the use of graphene become too common. Let us find ways to control the spread of graphene outside its intended use and place of use. Lastly let us find bio degradable versions of graphene and avoid any form that does not breakdown when outside its intended place of use.

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