May 10, 2004

Small matter, many unknowns, few conclusions


A rather garbled message comes across from the Swiss Re study we mentioned last week, or at least that’s how it appears over at Bloomberg. Laying the blame at the doors of both Eva Oberdorster and Eric Drexler, the Bloomberg reports that “insurers may need to reconsider covering some products that use so-called nanotechnology.”

The full report is available from Swiss Re, and in general raises more questions that it begins to answer, concluding that, erm, more work needs to be done.

No great surprises then, but two interesting points are worth highlighting.

Firstly the insurance industry is very interested in the idea that "manufactured nanoparticles would be traceable back to the manufacturer" allowing a single company rather than an entire industry to be pinpointed as the guilty party. That’s an attractive idea, both in lowering overall premiums while encouraging individual manufacturers to take suitable precautions against heath and environmental risks. Adding a bar code or some form of unique identifier to each individual 10nm particle may in practice be difficult, although merely identifying the batch may be less problematic.

Secondly, once again nanotechnology gets compared with asbestos, something we find as odd as comparing an entire species with an individual. A better comparison may of course be carbon nanotubes, but there is one major difference between the technology we are currently developing, and previously useful materials that subsequently proved toxic. The combination of caution (following PCBs, Asbestos, BSE etc.) with experience and analytical instrumentation means we are far more aware of potential hazards even if we do not fully understand how to quantify them. Any new compound is immediately subjected to an array of tests, from electron microscopy to mass spectrometry, and experience quickly leads us to wonder whether for example nanofibres could possibly be similar to asbestos long before we start spreading them around.

In the meantime, are you sure that you really really want to be a nanotech company?

Posted by Cientifica at May 10, 2004 10:30 PM | TrackBack
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