Particle toxicology: from coal mining to nanotechnology

Inhal Toxicol. 2002 Mar;14(3):311-24. doi: 10.1080/08958370252809086.


Particle research has been historically closely connected to industrial activities or materials, such as coal, asbestos, man-made mineral fibers, and more recently ambient particulate matter (PM). It is the purpose of this review to combine insights and developments in particle toxicology with the historical context of exposure and organizations sponsoring such research in Europe. In supporting research on particle-induced respiratory effects and mechanisms, research programs of the European Community on Steel and Coal (ECSC) have played a tremendous role. Current particle research in Europe is dominated by PM, and funded by the World Health Organization (WHO), European Union Framework programs, and the Health Effects Institute (HEI). Differences between historical and current research in particle toxicology include the exposure concentrations, particle size, target populations, endpoints, and length of exposure. Inhaled particle effects are no longer confined to the lung, since particles are suggested to translocate to the blood while lung inflammation invokes systemic responses. Finally, the particle size and concentrations have both been reduced about 100-fold from 2-5 mg/m3 to 20-50 mg/m3 and from 1-2 microm to 20-100 nm (ultrafine) as domestic fuel burning has decreased and vehicle sources have increased and attention has moved from coal mining industry to general environment. There is, however, a further occupational link to nanotechnology, which continuously produces new materials in the ultrafine range. Although inhalation exposure is considered to be minimal in this technology, some particles are produced to be used for carrier purpose in medical applications. Based on our current knowledge of particle toxicology, it is highly desirable that toxicology and technology are linked in this extremely rapid developing area, to learn more about potential risks and also to develop knowledge on the role of surface and size in particle toxicity.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Coal / toxicity*
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Incineration
  • Inflammation
  • Lung / drug effects
  • Lung / pathology*
  • Mining* / history
  • Occupational Exposure*
  • Particle Size
  • Public Health
  • Risk Assessment
  • Toxicology / history
  • Toxicology / trends*


  • Coal