By Christoph Meili
Nanomaterials are commonly used in many industrial and consumer products, and while they can help create innovative products, they also pose substantial risks to human health and the environment. Self-cleaning windows, scratch-resistant colors and lacquers, transparent sunscreens, antimicrobial plastering as well as packaging materials or textiles are examples of nano products available on the market. And that list of industrial and consumer products is growing.
The European Commission defines "nanomaterial" as a natural, incidental or manufactured material containing 50 percent or more of its particles in the size range of 1-100 nanometers (1 nm = 10-9 m). Compared to corresponding bulk materials nanomaterials often show new physical and chemical properties. Therefore they are often used in nanotechnologically improved products and applications.
In Germany for example, there are approximately 2,000 companies and research organizations related to nanotechnology. Most of them (44 percent) are small and medium-sized enterprises, 41 percent are research organizations and university labs and 15 percent are large companies. In 2011 there were 64,000 workers in the nanotechnology field.
Due to the cross-sectional character of nanotechnologies the sales volumes of nanomaterials and nanoproducts are increasing in all industries. In the color and lacquer industry for instance, it is expected that by 2020, 20 percent of the total business sales will be generated by nano-components (for example smart coatings), as the antimicrobial and scratch-resistant ingredients. The situation in other industries is similar. According to international forecasts, nanotechnologies will be a key factor in the value creation of goods, with a market value of up to $3 trillion by 2015. Their market potential in 2015 could correspond to approximately 15 percent of the industrial goods market. A large part of the global goods production, for example in the areas of health, information and communication technology, energy and environmental technology would be based on the application of nanotechnology knowledge.
Assessing the Nano Risk Profile
Nanomaterials have often been critically discussed in the past few years with regard to their potential adverse effects on human health and the environment. Even though scientific risk research on nanomaterials has been ongoing for more than 10 years, it is still premature to determine potential adverse effects on human health and the environment in the mid- and long-term perspective.
In addition to physical and chemical data, exposure data is needed to address human and eco-toxicological effects. Nanomaterials which are bound or embedded in a solid matrix pose low or even no risk, according to many experts. By contrast, unbound, powdered or airborne particles could be inhaled and enter the bloodstream through the lungs. In the bloodstream, particles can enter cells. Some nano particles have actually been found in the nucleus and interacting with cellular structures. Carbon nanotubes (CNT), which are long, fiber-shaped nano molecules have been found to cause inflammation and asbestos-cancer-like malignant tumors in mice.
Nanoparticles can also enter the body through digestion. However, there is few data on the behavior of nanomaterials in the intestinal tract that demonstrate that titaniumdioxide nanoparticles (which are commonly used in food) cause inflammatory reactions and have genotoxic effects in cells of in the intestine, according to a study by Heinrich Heine Universitšt in Germany. In the environment there are persistent and bioactive nanomaterials which are critically examined. Today, no final judgment of the potential risks of specific nanomaterials in the middle or longterm perspective is possible. A "long-tail" risk potential for certain nanomaterials, however, cannot be excluded.
Potential Loss Exposure for Liability Insurances
A recent study published by global reinsurer Gen Re demonstrates that nanotechnologies pose potential risks to liability insurances due to the enormous global use of nanomaterials in industry and consumer products. According to Gen Re this could affect liability insurances in the following liability lines of business:
* CGL (Comprehensive General Liability) insurance
* Product liability insurance
* Environmental liability insurance
* Product recall
* Workers' compensation
The increasing number of compensation claims, the complexity of nanotechnologies and the unlimited passive legal protection for consumers offered by liability insurance policies could easily cause tremendous costs to elaborate defense.
The Chief Risk Officers Forum said that given the enormous economic potential, it's vital for insurance companies not to ban nanotechnologies from insurance policies. Exclusion of nanotechnologies is no option. In fact, understanding the potential risks of nanomaterials and promoting risk awareness and risk management among the insured companies is crucial. Thus, long-term damages, as happened in the case of asbestos, could be avoided.
Nevertheless, the Gen Re study states that most insurance companies do not look into the matter of nano risks at all. Furthermore, the current situation could be called a "waiting period" in the insurance industry. It is recommended that the insurance companies should rather anticipate the potential developments, monitor the ongoing risk research and international regulation with a systematic "Risk-Radar."
No Nano Registry in Sight
Nanomaterials are regulated on national and international levels. In the European Union there are several regulations applicable to nanomaterials (for example: cosmetics, biocide and medical devices regulation.)
Most of the present regulations on EU level and above do not refer explicitly to nanomaterials or nano-specific properties of the chemicals or products. Many critics and even authorities argue that nanomaterials are not treated adequately in current regulations.
Today there is only one country in the world (France) which has started a mandatory registry for nanomaterials. On the European and also at the global level there is no official registry of nanomaterials and nanoproducts available. A registry of nanomaterials in the European Union has been discussed since 2008 but has never been started. Therefore there is a growing lack of information concerning the use and application of nanomaterials on the market. There is a systematic shortage of data concerning nanomaterials along the value-chain. Downstream users often lack data about nanomaterials which are used in their processes or products. Therefore it seems very difficult for insurance companies to get nano-specific information and data from their insured customers. Thus, liability insurers have to determine the risk profiles in their portfolio with external data and expertise.
Liability insurers have to meet the challenges of nanotechnologies. The uncertainties in the risk profile of certain nanomaterials can be handled by:
* checking new and existing liability policies in the portfolios for hidden nano risks
* raising customer (external) and underwriter (internal) awareness of potential nano risks
* developing appropriate underwriting strategies with risk-specific signing policies
* developing a continuous monitoring, based on the state-of-the-art of science and technology.
Thus, liability insurance companies can profit from booming nanotechnologies. They can price their nano policies adequately. On the other hand they can avoid unforeseen late damages and losses through "long-tail" risks of nanomaterials.
Christoph Meili is CEO of The Innovation Society, St.Gallen (Switzerland), an international consulting company which advises insurances, industry and regulators in risk-management and governance of nanotechnology. He is also senior lecturer at the University of St.Gallen. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
February 11, 2013
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