Nanotechnologies need risk management, says Dr Christoph Lauterwasser

One of the most exciting technological arenas today is nanotechnology.

Nanoscience has taught us that it is possible to design, produce and apply structures at a size range of less than a few hundred nanometers, down to the atomic scale. Materials behave remarkably differently at this scale compared to the same material in larger form. Physical properties such as optical properties become size dependent, a larger surface-to-mass-ratio leads to enhanced chemical reactivity and below 50 nanometers the laws of classical physics give way to quantum effects.

What does this mean to the "real world" that surrounds us? A report by Allianz in collaboration with the OECD predicts that nanotechnologies will have a significant impact on the global economy over the next few years. Nanotechnology has already started to have an impact: in hundreds of applications nanotechnology and nanoparticles are already used to enhance existing products. These applications range from hard disk drives to sun screens and car components. Over time, this enabling technology will penetrate almost all branches of industry from sports equipment to agriculture and pharmaceuticals.

Along with this enormous economic potential a debate on new risks has started. First studies on health and safety risks of free nanoparticles indicates that these need to be considered a new class of risks. Some nanoparticles have been shown to be more toxic than the same material in bulk form. There are quite a few ingredients in this discussion that re/insurers will want to watch closely: an increasing number of people will be exposed; potential harmful effects are expected to evolve over longer periods of many years; in individual cases it will be difficult to establish a causal relationship between actions of a company and the resulting injury or damage and occupational exposure is a main concern.

But there is not one nanotechnology and not one single type of nanoparticle, but rather a whole range of activities that are labelled "nanotechnology".

That means that a close look at the issues involved is needed and that good risk management practices will be key to these critical issues. This approach requires more scientific evidence, methods to characterise risks and - last but not least - a close co-operation between underwriters and scientists.

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