Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Endometriosis mimicked by office printers, yes you read that right

You come across a lot of strange things in this world, mostly on reality TV shows, but occasionally a piece of academic literature will make you scratch your head and think “really?” There’s a whole blog dedicated to these type of research, they have examples such as; using Rastafarians to cure arachnophobia, and studying how your general income affects your propensity to eat coins. I’ll not dwell on my simmering rage at the fact that there seems to be an endless pot of gold to fund research into pointless subjects, yet if you want to do serious research into a chronic condition like endometriosis, you have to beg for scraps, no I’ll not dwell on that.

What I’m trying to get at is that occasionally, the apparently drab world of scientific investigation can throw something interesting into the mix. This leads me onto one of my latest finds. This was a paper entitled “Submesothelial deposition of carbon nanoparticles after toner exposition: case report”, which struck me as rather odd considering it came up in a search for papers on endometriosis. By all accounts it’s not a jokey paper like the ones mentioned above, but a serious investigation into the effect of exposure to carbon nanoparticles given off by office printers on people’s health.

One case in particular is interesting, the case of a woman who underwent laparoscopic surgery with suspected endometriosis. The surgeons found black deposits in her peritoneum (pelvic cavity), which is pretty indicative of endometriosis. However, the surgeons took a sample of one of these supposed endometriotic implants and examined it more closely under a powerful microscope. What they found, to their surprise, was that the black deposits, which looked like endometriosis to the naked eye, were clumps of carbon nanoparticles (basically the tiny particles given off by printer toner cartridges. To give to an idea how tiny, the largest particles were 60nm in diameter, that’s the size you would get if you took a ruler, measured out 1mm then divided that into a thousand pieces, then took one of those pieces and divided it into seventeen pieces, each one of the remaining pieces would be around 60nm) and not endometriosis at all. Quite odd I think you’ll agree.

So how did printer toner dust end up in this woman’s pelvic cavity? The lady in question was working in an office with eight printers in close proximity, in addition to this she was using a laser printer herself pretty much constantly meaning there was ample time to breathe in lots of toner particles. The authors speculate that the carbon dust particles entered her body through the lungs and, because they were so small, were able to pass through the lining of the lungs into the blood and lymph vessels. From there they travelled around the body and for some reason deposited in the pelvic cavity.

As far as I know this is the only such report on record of carbon nanoparticles mimicking endometriosis, and on closer inspection it’s pretty easy to tell the two apart. Still, it’s quite an unusual finding.

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