Nanotech — on the MarchBy Kevin B. Thompson
Senior Vice President
|Nanotechnology is the applied science of assembling materials, products, and even machines by manipulating individual atoms or molecules. Using nanotechnology, manufacturers can produce materials with new and useful physical, chemical, or biological properties. Carbon can become 100 times stronger than steel. Aluminum can become highly explosive. And copper can become transparent.
Scientists working in nanotechnology measure their products in nanometers — billionths of a meter — the length a man’s beard grows in the time it takes him to pick up a razor from the bathroom sink and bring it to his face to shave.
Assembling materials on a nano scale promises a new generation of cleaner, stronger, lighter, and more precise products. Computer chips and other electronic components, fuel cells, and industrial coatings are just the start. You’ll also see golf clubs that can help you shoot straighter, fabrics that repel stains and resist wrinkles, and sunblocks that go on your skin completely transparent. In the construction industry, nanotechnology will provide an array of materials that will help us build smarter and more durable structures — ones that resist weather damage and reduce maintenance costs.
And the benefits for medicine could be even greater. With nanoparticles, doctors may someday be able to apply drugs that can pinpoint and destroy tumors more accurately than ever before.
So what’s the problem?
While it’s too early to catalog all the implications of nanotechnology for insurers, there’s a good deal of concern about possible unexpected consequences. For example, since the components are so small, they could theoretically slip through human cell membranes and cause molecular damage. A recent study suggests that some forms of carbon nanoparticles could be as dangerous as asbestos if inhaled in sufficient quantities. And silver particles — used in socks to reduce foot odor — can come out in the wash, potentially interfering with the action of beneficial bacteria in waste treatment plants.
Already, millions of workers are regularly exposed to nanoparticles. You may have heard about the lab technicians working with a rag containing a nanoparticle residue that spontaneously burst into flame. The technicians were surprised to discover that the substance was extremely combustible.
As the products of nanotechnology become ever more pervasive, all of us — and every part of our environment — will come into daily contact with nanomaterials. We all need to consider the consequences. For insurers, the potential for product liability is obvious.
ISO regularly monitors social and technological issues — as well as legislative, regulatory, and legal developments — that may affect our insurance programs. We modify our programs to reflect changes in all those areas. And we’re constantly on the lookout for emerging gaps in coverage, so we can develop programs that respond to society’s evolving needs.