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By Greg Brumbeloe, Vice President, Insurance EducationKaplan University School of Professional and Continuing Education Published June 2014
There are numerous articles and blogs about nanotechnology available on the Internet. To readers unfamiliar with this topic, these musings, written by both experts and non-experts, seem to create more questions than clarity. Some of the more interesting questions raised involve the health, environmental, and societal risks associated with this rapidly-growing industry, projected by the National Science Foundation to be a $1 trillion market, exclusive of the semi-conductor industry, by 2015.
What exactly is nanotechnology? While some would argue there isn't a clear definition, one of the simplest and most concise explanations is provided by the National Nanotechnology Initiative1 (NNI), which defines nanotechnology as "the manipulation of matter with at least one dimension sized from 1 to 100 nanometers." This involves imaging, measuring, modeling, and manipulating various types of matter within this range, known as the nanoscale. One of the most commonly-used examples of nanotechnology resides in the semi-conductor industry. Over the past two decades, chip design has gotten smaller and smaller with most chips now falling in the 1-100 nanometer range, qualifying them as nanotechnology under the NNI's definition. The semi-conductor market alone is estimated to be $1.45 trillion by 2015, according to the National Science Foundation. However, nanotechnology is also applicable to a vast array of other materials, such as color pigments in paints, anti-microbial properties in cosmetics, and nanotitanium dioxide used in sunscreen, as well as a wide array of other industries, such as pharmaceuticals, textiles, and energy.
Since a nanometer is equal to one billionth of a meter, nanomaterials are incredibly tiny and, consequently, the related health and ecological risks associated with these products could be numerous. The concerns about toxicity to humans and the environment also raise questions about the societal effects of nanotechnology, including the impact on the global economy. Let's take a look at some of the potential major risk implications of this innovative branch of technology:
Health and Safety Risks: According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, many of the health risks associated with nanomaterials are not yet understood. Of utmost concern, there are possibilities that uniquely engineered nanoparticles released in the air, called "free nanoparticles," can be inhaled, particularly during the research and manufacturing processes, and exposure to these materials could cause serious lung or other health problems. Nanoparticles can also be ingested, absorbed via dermal (skin) contact, or intentionally injected, all of which can have toxic consequences to the recipient. Nanotoxicology is a growing field created to study the potential health risks of nanoparticles as a means to better understand and quantify these risks.
Environmental Risks: Many types of nanomaterials can be hazardous to the environment. These "nano-pollutants" can be released into the air or water during production and contaminate the soil, water, and plant life. There are also issues arising with the safe disposal of post-production nanomaterial wastes. These environmental risks, along with those related to human health, could have significant implications to the insurance industry in the future, as the impact of nanotechnology on insurance claims, such as bodily injury and property damage, may be substantial and at times impossible to accurately assess.
Economic Risks: Nanotechnology can potentially have a negative impact on the U.S. and world economies. These risks could occur through sky-rocketing health care costs affecting the forecasted 2 million2 workers in the nanotechnology industry in 2015, as well as the resulting class action lawsuits against major corporations employing these workers. Also, since nanotechnology leads to faster and cheaper production, nanotechnology can impact the types and number of jobs that are available and potentially displace workers, thus increasing unemployment rates.
Societal Risks: In addition to the toxicity impact on human health, nanotechnology can have significant effects on politics and human interaction. For example, there are concerns that the benefits of nanotechnology will not be distributed evenly and will create a wider wealth gap between affluent and developing nations. Also, as mentioned previously, unskilled laborers could be displaced by the use of nanotechnology in the workplace, putting people out of work and lowering standards of living in the world.
The biggest concern about nanotechnology risks are the unknowns. Much research is needed to determine all risks and ensure we keep them to a minimum. Regulatory agencies, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are constantly challenged to keep up as this rapidly growing industry surges on. Comprehensive regulation of nanotechnology is vital to understanding these risks and protecting our people and natural resources, while ensuring the negatives do not overshadow the benefits from this important emerging industry.
About Greg Brumbeloe
Mr. Brumbeloe is the Executive Director of Insurance Education at Kaplan University's School of Professional and Continuing Education. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with a major in finance from Auburn University and an MBA in Management from Mercer University. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the view of Kaplan University.
1. The National Nanotechnology Initiative is a U.S. Government research and development initiative involving the nanotechnology-related activities of 20 departments and independent agencies. The NNI is managed within the framework of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), the Cabinet-level council under the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House. As an interagency effort, the NNI has a 2014 budget of $1.5 billion, funded directly from the NNI member agencies.
2. Number of nanotech workers forecasted by the National Foundation of Science to support $1 trillion in new products and technologies, excerpted from ''Nanotechnology Research Directions for Societal Needs in 2020'', (MC Roco, CA Mirkin, and MC Hersam Eds.), National Science Foundation/Word Technology Evaluation Center report, Springer, 2010.
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