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Last Updated 7/28/17

Nanotechnology is an innovative science involving the design and application of small-sized particles measured in nanometers. According to the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), nanotechnology is science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers (or about one-billionth of a meter). Objects at the nanoscale are so small they are invisible to the human eye, even with a regular microscope. Their tiny size and high surface area give them unique characteristics—at the nanoscale, such materials behave differently than their larger counterparts, with different chemical, physical, or biological properties. Materials may be more conductive, stronger or more chemically reactive than those containing larger particles of the same compound.

Nanotechnology is incorporated in a wide array of industry and household products such as; cosmetics, sunblock, toothpaste, food and food packaging, animal feeds, medicines, medical devices, vehicles and electronics. Many sunscreens contain nanoparticles of zinc oxide or titanium oxide. Nanoparticles are used to enhance clothing; fabrics coated with a thin layer of zinc oxide give protection from UV radiation. Some bandages have a nano-coating of silver to help wounds heal more quickly; while many tennis balls are coated with a nano-clay composite that makes them more airtight and allows them to last longer on the courts. The use of nanotechnology in household products continues to grow rapidly. The Consumers Products Inventory now lists over 1,600 products that have been identified by the manufacture as containing nanoparticles. 

The nanotechnology industry has expanded significantly over the last two decades. However, with its increased use, concerns are growing around the possible harm nanotechnology may have on humans, animals or the environment. Because nanotechnology is a relatively new science, there is currently little known about the possible health and safety risks it presents. The unusual properties that make nanoscale materials attractive may pose unexpected risks that could take years or even decades to surface.  According to AM Best, of all the technology risks now emerging, nanotechnology product exposures may be most similar to asbestos. A major study by Nature Nanotechnology, noted that inhaling carbon nanotubes could be as harmful as breathing in asbestos.

A Nov. 2011 study by Gen Re noted that the expanding use of nanotechnology in industry and consumer products may be the most important, yet most ignored, emerging issues facing property and casualty insurers. According to Gen Re, nanotechnology risk could affect liability insurances in the following liability lines of business: comprehensive general liability (CGL), product liability insurance, environmental liability insurance, product recall, and workers’ compensation. As such, insurers and regulators should stay abreast of potential risks specific to this emerging technology.