CARBON FIBRE structures can pose health hazards of a similar scale to those caused by asbestos if the material is subjected to crash impact, explosion or fire damage, it was revealed this week.
Research by engineers at BRE and experiments by other medical research groups have shown microscopic particles, released from carbon fibre when damaged under stress, can carry dust and bacteria and become lodged deep in the lungs if breathed.
The risk was highlighted at last week's ICE hazards forum.
The fibre particles are released when carbon fibre is stressed and fractured during a crash, and the effect is made worse by fire.
Civil engineers are particularly at risk when investigating crash or explosion sites where carbon fibre may be present in aircraft or vehicle wreckage.
The physical and chemical characteristics of the ultrafine carbon fibres - which are less than 10 microns thick - make them immune to the lungs' natural cleansing mechanism, the research suggests. This can lead to chronic inflammation and fluid in the lungs, and may ultimately cause emphysema.
Carbon fibre reinforced polymers are used increasingly as bridge strengthening materials (NCE 4 May) and are being used by London Underground to reinforce cast iron tunnel lining segments. CFRP is also favoured by architects for its high-tech image and is also finding its way into lightweight tensile structures.
Recent combat aircraft crashes - which first revealed the health risks - have prompted the RAF to set up special procedures and protective clothing for cleaning up aircraft containing carbon fibre.