United States: Nanotechnology: What We Know And Don't Know

Nanotechnology, nanomaterials, and nanoparticles are certainty not common terms that most people use in their everyday vernacular, with that being said, obtaining a general understanding of nanotechnology is not as frightening as a science fiction novel gone wrong or as complicated as obtaining an engineering degree from MIT.

Nanotechnology is the general manipulation of matter on a near atomic scale to produce new materials, structures, and devices or nanomaterials. The term is often synonymous and more easily understood as "molecular manufacturing." Like many other scientific terms, the prefix "nano" is derived from the Greek term meaning "dwarf" and one nanometer is one billionth of a meter. Nanotechnology byproducts, particles, or materials are those that are not capable of being seen with the naked eye. In fact, nanomaterials by definition are those things that have a length scale between 1 and 100 nanometers, for comparison, just to portray how small nanoparticles are, we can compare it to one ant, which measures 5,000,000 nanometers.

Nanoscience and nanotechnology involve the ability to see and to control individual atoms and molecules. Everything on Earth is made up of atoms—the air we breathe, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the buildings and houses we live in, and our own bodies. When matter is manipulated at this small of a scale, the wonders of quantum physics take course and the matters' properties change. In some instances, the effects are seen within the surface area, magnetism, reactivity, electrical conductivity, or the thermal properties of the matter. Researching, developing, and utilizing these properties' changes is the heart of nanotechnology, the next scientific frontier.

As nanotechnology has expanded and yielded favorable results, its use has been incorporated into the cosmetic, energy, manufacturing, and healthcare industries to improve products. The products range from items such as paints, sunscreens, moisturizers, tennis balls, burn and wound dressings, stain-resistant clothing, mattresses, building materials, and medical devices. The widespread use of nanotechnology in these differing industries has caused increased public concern as to the unknown residual effects of nanotechnology on the environment and the human body. It remains to be solved, whether this concern is driven by the fears of what is unknown, or if these nanoparticles are truly dangerous precipitating the next great waive of toxic tort litigation.

The mix of scientific uncertainty and public fear form the foundation for prospecting litigators and future claims. This fear is in part driven by the heavy price paid for past wrongs, particularly, as in the widespread use of asbestos. Asbestos, like nanotechnology byproducts, was once deemed to be the next frontier, the all-mighty fire resistant, durable, miracle building material. Yet, what was unknown then, that is known now, is the carcinogenic nature of the material that has been correlated to be one of the causes of lung cancer and asbestosis, a fibrosis of the lung, a chronic disease. In the last 20 years, asbestos litigation has expanded to claims involving mere instances of exposure, which has resulting in extensive litigation and the payout of over $70 billion in claims.

Unlike present day asbestos claims which are often complex litigation claims, nanotechnology is an emerging industry that is largely unregulated. The National Nanotechnology Initiative is a $1.5 billion federally funded government research and development initiative set up to coordinate the efforts of over 20 governmental agencies that research, develop, and educate in the fields of nanotechnology.

The lack of regulation has resulted in the need for private industries, including but not limited to manufacturers and insurance companies, to develop their own policies, procedures, and practices to address the growing concerns of the residual effects of nanotechnology.

However, efforts may be deemed futile because nanotechnology and its risks remain unknown. Another potential obstacle in assessing nanotechnology risk is that nanoparticles encompass too a wide of range of applications. The many different nanoparticles that can comprise one product, must be studied individually, on a case by case basis, presenting a burden not only on the potential plaintiff to prove causation and damages, but also on the insured to protect against future exposures and defend the claim. For this reason, insurance companies are forced into an untenable position as they are unable to write specific coverages for or excluding nanotechnology.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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