With greater knowledge comes greater responsibility, and greater liability. When it comes to nanotechnology, our ability to understand the potential risks is unprecedented, thanks in part to the asbestos mass tort experience. If the nanotechnology industry wants to avoid a similar catastrophe, the lessons of the asbestos litigation should be heeded now.
Although there are many types of nanoparticles, three in particular have become the subject of increasing discussion: (1) carbon nanotubes (CNTs); (2) nano-sized titanium dioxide (TiO2); and (3) nanosilver. Like asbestos years ago, these nanomaterials are considered a critical industrial resource with immense potential, and they are already present in hundreds of products that we use every day.
However, apprehension about the potential (though not established) effects of these materials on human health and the environment is growing. For example, certain physical properties of long, thin CNTs are similar to the most hazardous forms of asbestos, which raises the specter of mesothelioma – an incurable cancer of the pleura and peritoneum that is caused by asbestos exposure. As a result of such concerns, at least one insurer has specifically excluded CNTs from coverage. Recent agency statements regarding the potential health effects of occupational exposure to nano-scale TiO2 have spurred inquiry into the use of this material in finished products. And environmental groups have petitioned the EPA to stop the proliferation of products that use nanosilver in the absence of further research. Meanwhile, public awareness of the use of nanomaterials remains low: In a survey conducted by the Project for Emerging Nanotechnologies, 70 percent of respondents had heard little or nothing about nanotechnology.
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