The insurance industry is normally concerned with the very large – hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, etc.- but there’s increasing awareness that it should also be concerned about the very small. Nanotechnology is small indeed. A “nano” refers to one nano-meter, which is one billionth of a meter. It is on an atomic scale – thousands of times smaller than a conventional microscope can see – the size of a virus.
The term refers to the engineering, measurement and understanding of nano-scaled materials and devices, and subsequently how to use them. That’s where the concerns come in. While the increasing use of nanotechnology promises breakthroughs in many fields, it may also pose dangers to human health.
Although the exact nature of those risks has yet to be defined, the insurance industry is already gearing up to assess them. Having been caught out by asbestos and environmental liabilities that no one expected, Lloyd’s is taking no chances this time around. A current article on the Lloyd’s web site (www.lloyds.com) discusses nanotechnology.
Lloyd’s has also scheduled a Conference on the subject in collaboration with Lloyd’s the Lighthill Risk Network (http://www.lighthillrisknetwork.org), a research group, recently established by Guy Carpenter. The seminar, which will be held in the Old Library at Lloyd’s on Dec. 10, will examine the “the risks and opportunities of nanotechnology. There will be four expert speakers from a range of backgrounds to discuss the latest developments on this Emerging Risk topic. Also in December, Lloyd’s Emerging Risks team will be publishing a report on nanotechnology on the Lloyd’s web site to try and answer some of the questions highlighted in this brief.”
How big is this new scientific marvel? “One estimate states that 15 percent of global manufactured goods will contain nanotechnology by the year 2014,” said Lloyd’s. That would concern almost everybody. “Some believe they have the power to transform the world; others are concerned that the pace of change is too fast and unregulated. At best insurers may have new products to insure; and safer materials leading to lower insurance losses. At worst they could lead to unexpected life, health, workers compensation, physical damage, and pollution losses.”
What is really needed is more knowledge. The particles are so small that they can go practically anywhere undetected. They could cause environmental damages. For human beings there may be liability issues. “We need to know what nano-particles are hazardous to humans, and what concentrations are required to cause harm?” said Lloyd’s. “Can nano-particles cause chronic health effects similar to asbestosis? The short answer is that we simply do not know.
There has been a particular focus on the effect of inhalation of nano-particles such as carbon nano-tubes and initial investigations carried out show some nano-particles are acutely toxic when compared to larger particles composed of the same material. However, studies looking at the chronic effects of nano-particles are much less common, though some are underway. The UK Council for Science and Technology highlighted that there is insufficient research into the toxicology and health and environmental effects of nano-materials.”
As far as the public perception of nanotechnology is concerned, Lloyd’s points out that it “differs between regions, though some studies show that in general the public are either not aware of nanotechnology, or if they are aware then it is viewed positively due to its potential applications. However, the potential negative impact of public opinion cannot be under-estimated as demonstrated with the genetically modified organism (GMO) industry.
“The EU, which took up a precautionary approach in part response to public opinion, is at odds with the US, where the public accepted the GMO technology. This disparity has resulted in very different regulation and use of the technology; could the same occur with nanotechnology?”
In addition to the Lighthill Risk Network, Lloyd’s cited the following studies as providing additional information on Nanotechnology:
1. The Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars “Nanotechnology Consumer Products Inventory”, http://www.nanotechproject.org/index.php?id=44&action=intro
2. The Royal Society’s report, “Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties”, http://www.nanotec.org.uk/finalReport.htm
3 The OECD “Nano Risk Framework”, http://nanoriskframework.com
4 “Nanotechnology: Risk, Ethics and Law”, Hunt and Mehta, published by Earthscan 2006.
5 Lux Research, “Nanotech Report, 4th Edition, the Indispensable Reference Guide to Nanotechnology”, http://www.luxresearchinc.com/press/RELEASE_TNR4.pdf
Persons interested in attending the Dec. 10 conference should contact: Natalie Compton, Customer Systems and Relationship Manager at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or David Baxter, Lead Researcher, Emerging Risks at: email@example.com