Nanotechnology is used in manufacturing where nanoparticles can be manipulated to make products such as tennis rackets, baseball bats, bicycles and similar products lightweight but at the
same time, stronger. Nanotechnology is used in pharmaceuticals to simplify the administering of medication. It is used to make clothing stain resistant. Nanotechnology can be applied to make
space-saving products. According to the NNI, almost all electronic devices manufactured in the last decade use some sort of nanomaterials.
The plastics industry uses nanotechnology in a variety of ways. Materials reinforced through nanotechnology are used in thermoplastics because they are capable of resisting heat, provide
dimensional stability and are capable of conducting electricity. Plastic nanotubes also are being created with nanotechnology. These nanotubes are flexible, lightweight and durable, and are
being used in the automotive, aerospace and chemical industries. Finally, special nanocomposite foams have been created and are expected to replace solid plastic because they are much
The impact of nanotechnology in the future seems immeasurable. The hope is that by using nanotechnology, companies will be able to make safer and stronger products. It will allow for energy
efficiency in homes, offices and vehicles. Better medical devices. Better medicine. Could there be a downside? Of course.
B. Risks and Concerns (in other words, the downside)
How prevalent is the use of nanotechnology? Researchers estimate that by 2015, nanomaterials will be incorporated in over $1 trillion worth of products. The NNI reports that in 2001, federal
funding for nanotechnology was approximately $464 million. Presently, that amount has risen to $1.5 billion. The increased reliability on nanomaterials comes with increased concerns.
Concerns involve predictability, the impact on the health of employees and consumers and the impact on the environment. Predictability is an issue because no one really knows how these
nanomaterials will behave over time. The behavior of materials at the nanoscale is not the same as those observed at larger scales. George Kimbrell from the International Center for
Technology Assessment explained the “scientific consensus on nanomaterials is that nano does not mean merely tiny, but rather materials that have the capacity to act in fundamentally
Of special concern is the health of employees involved in manufacturing products incorporating nanomaterials. For the manufacturing employees who will have the most extensive exposure to
nanomaterials, there is a real health risk in handling such small materials. Due to their extremely small size, nanomaterials have the ability to move throughout the environment unnoticed.
Inhaled nanomaterials can flow through the body undeterred by the human body’s natural defenses that would usually serve to block larger particles.
There is simply no way of knowing how each and every nanomaterial will behave once inside the body or what long-term effects it may have. Many have equated the potential risk of nanomaterials
to human health to those created by asbestos. The study of the potential health risks of nanomaterials has its own name – nanotoxicology.
C. Regulation of Nanotechnology
Given the uncertainty associated with nanotechnology, a major focus has been shifted to the regulation of nanotechnology and nanomaterials. Debates exist with respect to whether existing
regulation is sufficient or whether nanomaterials merit individual government attention. As recently as 2007, the Bush administration held the collective opinion there was no need for special
regulation of nanomaterials. However, the following year, other opinions arose. In Nanotechnology Oversight: An Agenda for the New Administration, J. Clarence Davies explored the need for
special regulation. Davies focused on four federal regulatory bodies – the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Consumer Product Safety
Commission (CPSC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) – all of which have some authority to regulate nanomaterials.
Davies suggested actions the regulatory bodies could take, both together and independent of one another, to assist in regulation. For example, the EPA, which administers the existing Toxic
Substances Control Act (TSCA), could define nanomaterials as “new” chemical substances. Treating the materials as “new” rather than simply smaller versions of existing chemicals would subject
the nanomaterials to many TSCA regulatory authorities. The EPA also could explore the application of other existing laws under its authority to nanomaterials and push for revisions of those
laws to give them teeth in the face of potential risks.
Similarly, the FDA could determine which nanomaterials are “new” for regulatory purposes. In other words, when already approved products begin to incorporate nanomaterials, will the product
then be considered “new”? If so, additional testing and approval may be required. Davies suggested OSHA should require education and training concerning the use of nanomaterials. OSHA could
use its existing regulations to monitor and review safety standards related to nanomaterials. As this shows, opinions are moving toward greater regulation of nanotechnology.
D. What Steps Should You Take Now?
It is likely just a matter of time before the first large class-action cases are filed asserting a connection between the use and exposure of certain nanomaterials and personal injury. Some
commentators warn that the risk and danger of overexposure to nanomaterials will result in the same type of mass tort litigation that arose from the undisclosed risks associated with
asbestos. While there is no way for manufacturers and other employers to avoid a determined plaintiff’s attorney, there are steps they can take to limit their litigation risk and exposure.
First, manufactures and employers must stay informed with regard to new regulations and proposed regulations. Business owners do not want to end up in litigation over something as simple as
posting a warning on its products or properly training its employees. The regulatory landscape may be quickly changing and businesses need to keep up or suffer the consequences.
Second, companies should review their insurance policies with their carriers to determine whether existing policies are sufficient or if additional coverage will be necessary. If there is a
concern about the use of nanomaterials in the workplace or in products, it is much better to address the issues with the insurance companies now rather than after a lawsuit is filed.
Third, businesses may want to consult with experts in the field of nanomaterials. Such experts may be able to identify potential risks not readily apparent to the everyday business owner or
employee. Additionally, in the two birds with one stone category, an expert will likely be familiar with all existing regulations and potential regulations that could impact the business and
The one certainty that can be taken away is that nanotechnology is here to stay. Although nanotechnology serves to benefit us all greatly, there are, like with everything else, risks that
must be weighed as well. Companies must be diligent in monitoring their use of nanomaterials and its effects on employees and products. No one can completely avoid a lawsuit, but everyone can
take affirmative actions to lessen the impact of litigation on their bottom line.
Kevin Murch is a partner in Schottenstein Zox & Dunn’s Litigation and Trial Law Practice Group. He can be reached at 614.462.2217 or email@example.com.