19 May 2015

Nanotech materials – the role of liability and insurance

Commercial products containing synthetic nanomaterials may range from safe food additives to potentially explosive products. In some cases the risks to consumers are unclear because of a lack of long term test data.

In a recent journal article, NCCR researchers Rachel Liechti-McKee and Georg Karlaganis consider the challenge this uncertainty poses for legislators and the insurance industry. They contend that liability and insurance can play an important pioneering role in the regulation of nanomaterials.

Present in all product groups, nanomaterials may have positive or negative effects on welfare, health and the environment at different stages in their lifecycle. But consumers may not even be aware that products they use contain them.

The Swiss government requires that the authorities are notified of the presence of nanomaterials. However, this information is confidential and not available to the public.

Karlaganis says that in Europe some manufacturers fear stigmatisation of their products if they declare the presence of nanomaterials in them. Following bad experiences with GMOs, which were not well received on the European market, manufacturers will not declare nanomaterials unless forced by the government.

“In contrast, in Asia producers make advertisements for nanomaterials in Asian products,” he said.

Within Europe moves are underway to regulate use of nanomaterials, but progress is slow.

 “It is difficult to reach consensus among the different stakeholders, which is why it is taking so long,” commented Georg Karlaganis.

Minimising risk
In the same way issues of liability have still to be resolved. The researchers say the insurance industry should be able to go faster than the regulatory process of governments in this respect.

“The insurance industry wants to earn money. It does not want to sell insurance policies where high risk products are involved. It can demand its customers comply with voluntary measures to increase the safety of nanomaterials,” said Karlaganis.

Another option is the introduction of a legal obligation to declare nanomaterials.

Given the inherent but unknown risks, the researchers are calling for lessons learned from the human tragedy of the delayed and deadly effects of asbestos to be implemented in legislation.

“Toxicological data should have been taken into account earlier and seen as a warning signal. The precautionary principle should have been applied, before full scientific evidence was available,” said Karlaganis.

To see a full version of the article in German, please contact one of the authors.

You can read an abstract (in German and French) here.