Review of techniques and studies characterizing the release of carbon nanotubes from nanocomposites: Implications for exposure and human health risk assessment

J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol. 2018 May;28(3):203-215. doi: 10.1038/jes.2017.6. Epub 2017 May 31.


Composites made with engineered nanomaterials (nanocomposites) have a wide range of applications, from use in basic consumer goods to critical national defense technologies. Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are a popular addition in nanocomposites because of their enhanced mechanical, thermal, and electrical properties. Concerns have been raised, though, regarding potential exposure and health risks from nanocomposites containing CNTs because of comparisons to other high aspect ratio fibers. Assessing the factors affecting CNT release from composites is therefore paramount for understanding potential exposure scenarios that may occur during product handling and manipulation. Standardized methods for detecting and quantifying released CNTs, however, have not yet been developed. We therefore evaluated experimental approaches deployed by various researchers, with an emphasis on characterizing free versus composite bound CNTs. From our analysis of published studies characterizing CNT releases from nanocomposites, we found that the qualitative and quantitative methods used across studies varied greatly, thus limiting the ability for objective comparison and evaluation of various release factors. Nonetheless, qualitative results indicated that factors such as composite type, CNT functionalization, and energy input during manipulation (i.e., grinding) may affect CNT release. Based on our findings, we offer several recommendations for future product testing and assessment of potential exposure and health risks associated with CNT nanocomposites.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants / analysis
  • Air Pollution / analysis
  • Environmental Monitoring / methods*
  • Humans
  • Microscopy
  • Nanocomposites / analysis*
  • Nanotubes, Carbon / analysis*
  • Particle Size
  • Risk Assessment / methods*
  • Stress, Mechanical


  • Air Pollutants
  • Nanotubes, Carbon