Home > Property & Casualty > Nanoparticles – will they improve our standard of living or kill us?

Nanoparticles – will they improve our standard of living or kill us?

nanoparticles-in-blueWhat would you say to a product that increases the strength of rope, makes blankets warmer or insulates our houses to keep it cool in the summer and warm in the winter? Most people would respond favorably to a product with these enhancements. But what if it also contained hazardous minerals that led to serious health problems? In the case of the product mentioned above, the result was asbestos. Roughly 21,000 asbestos related deaths are estimated to occur each year. Some time ago the US Government made a prediction that more than 5-million Americans ultimately may die of cancer and other diseases caused by asbestos exposure.

Fast forward to today, where we are on the threshold of nanoparticles ready to remodel the way we live. What is nano? Nanoparticles are very tiny particles measured in nanometers. A nanometer is one millionth of a millimeter – approximately 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

Today, nanoparticles are found in sunscreen, food, clothing, and cosmetics. From an industry application, nanoparticles are also used in the medical, automotive, and technology fields. You cannot live in a ‘nano’ free world.

What is the worry? If you ask the FDA, EPA, NIOSH, OSHA and the CDC it is a one word answer: Nanotoxicity. In the nanoscale dimensions, the biological and chemical properties are altered to show new properties which can enable the development of novel products. These new nanotechnology applications are cutting edge and deserve our attention. To name a few future products as the result of nanoparticles are:

  • Biomarkers that in our body can turn on and off certain genes. Or they can be used to detect diseases at very beginning stage before an individual shows symptoms. Disease diagnosis, treatment, monitoring and prevention will be done by a 24/7 read out of our molecular make up.
  • Delivery of drug medication directly to sick cells, so-called “smart” medicine.
  • High efficient solar panels that will be cost efficient and compare to the cost of traditional energy technologies.
  • Scratch proof car paint.
  • Biosensors to protect us from environmental applications to restoring partial movement to quadriplegics.

Is there a health tradeoff for these cutting edge advancements? Some say yes. This attractive technology has raised questions and concerns from industry experts, consumers, and regulators regarding their toxicity and potential exposure. The federal agencies listed above have already introduced nanoparticle-specific protocols.

Particles in the nanometer size range do occur in nature and as a result of existing industrial processes. One concern about nanoparticles is that they are so small that they can be inhaled and reach the lungs. Once in the body, some types of nanoparticles may have the ability to be distributed to other organs, including the central nervous system. Also,  there is no current evidence nor consensus about the ability of nanoparticles to penetrate through the skin.

The current nanotechnology revolution differs from past industrial processes because nanoparticles are being created and constructed, and not a result as a byproduct of other activities. The nanoparticles being created have altered properties compared to those of the parent composition. Since their properties are different when they are in the nano size range, it is expected that they will have different effects on the body and will need to be evaluated separately from the parent composition for toxicity.

One potential safety concern with nanoparticles is fires and explosions if large quantities of dust are generated during reactions or production. This is expected to become more of a concern when reactions are scaled up to from a test or R&D mode full production levels.

In the coming years, nanosafety will take center stage. Business and manufacturers will be fundamentally responsible to ensure the safety of their workers and end product users. Insurance will play a prominent role in the risk transfer.

About the Author

David Bardelli is a Senior Vice President and the Casualty Practice Leader for William Gallagher Associates. David has extensive knowledge with casualty risks, including technology healthcare, business services and miscellaneous manufacturing groups of all sizes.

617.646.0257 | DBardelli@wgains.com | Connect with David on LinkedIn

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