Asbestos. Purported “miracle fiber.” Shipbuilding. Asbestosis. Construction materials. Brake pads. Asbestos dust. Mesothelioma. Fireproofing. Cement pipes. Lung cancer. Cigarette filters. 730,000 claims. Connect the dots.

Between 1991 and 2004, U.S. insurers paid over $24 billion on asbestos claims, according to the Insurance Information Institute in a report published in October 2008.

So far, companies having anything to do with asbestos have paid approximately $70 billion in claims and related costs, with more than 8,400 entities named as defendants, according to the RAND Institute for Civil Justice.

Hundreds of insurance companies have already been decimated by the cost of dealing with the claims filed so far. The ultimate number of claims could reach 1-to-3 million, with up to half of them being filed by people with little or no physical impairment. The total cost of this unfolding disaster could reach $265 billion, according to analysts at Milliman.

And all of this trouble and heartache for a “miracle” fiber.

What does this have to do with nanotechnology?

Well, if you ask the average person on the street what they know about nanotechnology, you’re likely to get a shrug of the shoulders and a “huh?” If you’re really lucky, you might bump up against someone who thinks for a moment and says, “Well, it’s small and it’s good.”

The answer you’re not going to get, however, is: “Nanotechnology is a highly multidisciplinary field, drawing from a number of fields such as applied physics, materials science, interface and colloid science, device physics, supramolecular chemistry, self-replicating machines and robotics, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, biological engineering, and electrical engineering.”

If you were incredibly lucky enough to discuss the topic with a knowledgeable party, you’d eventually get around to the unknowns associated with nanotechnology. But before we get to that discussion, perhaps a quick recap of nanotechnology is in order.

The word nanotechnology is derived from the Greek word nanos, meaning dwarf, and is defined by the United States National Nanotechnology Initiative as the understanding and control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1-to-100 nanometers, where the matter takes on unique properties that enable novel applications.

Nanotechnology entails the manipulation of matter so small that it exists only in the atomic and molecular realms. As points of reference, there are 25.44 millimeters to an inch; 1 millimeter is equivalent to 1,000,000 nanometers, which in turn is 10,000 times smaller than anything that can be seen by the naked eye. A human hair is 50,000-to-100,000 nanometers in diameter.

Key areas that will benefit from the introduction of nanotechnology are manufacturing, the environment, medicine and information technology. Indeed, there are already more than 800 products available to consumers, ranging from transparent sunscreens and cosmetics to food additives, food packaging, and fertilizers that contain some aspect of nanotechnology.

Add to those such widely diverse products as paints, varnishes and coatings, computer chips, tennis rackets, burn dressings, infant pacifiers, and dental binding agents, and you begin to get a picture of just how broadly this new technology is touching everyone’s lives.

Worldwide, sales of nano-enabled products reached $50 billion in 2007 and were projected to hit $150 billion in 2008, according to Lux Research, an independent research and advisory firm based in New York and Boston.

In this brave new world, there is at least one poster child for the nanotechnology revolution that has attracted unwanted attention–carbon nanotubes. Discovered nearly 20 years ago, carbon nanotubes have been described as the “wonder material” of the 21st century, just as asbestos had been called the “miracle” product long ago.

The similar descriptions are uncanny and somewhat unnerving because some forms of carbon nanotubes, according to a major study published in May 2008 by researchers at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, could be as harmful as asbestos if inhaled in sufficient quantities.

What are they?

A definition taken from The Nanotechnology Project shows carbon nanotubes to be atom-thick sheets of graphite formed into cylinders. They may be formed from a single layer of graphite or they may consist of multiple concentric layers of graphite, resulting in multi-walled carbon nanotubes.

While the diameter of a nanotube can vary from a few nanometers up to tens of nanometers, they can be hundreds or even thousands of nanometers long.

The University of Edinburgh researchers found that long, thin carbon nanotubes showed the same effects as long, thin asbestos fibers when injected into the abdominal cavity of mice, a sensitive predictor of long-fiber response in the lung lining. Asbestos fibers are harmful because they are thin enough to penetrate deep into the lungs’ built-in clearance mechanisms for getting rid of particles.

This concern about the asbestos-like behavior of certain carbon nanotubes could augur serious issues for underwriters of product liability, commercial general liability and workers’ compensation insurance.

Underwriters need to be asking themselves the following questions:

o Do risk managers, agents and brokers even know about the issue?

o What products already in the stream of commerce might potentially endanger the health of consumers? Can the exposure be quantified?

o How will manufacturers prevent nanotubes from being inhaled in the places they are manufactured?

o In what way might employees be exposed to nanomaterials in the course of their jobs?

o In what ways might nanomaterials enter the body during those exposures?

o Once in the body, where would nanomaterials travel and how would they interact physiologically and chemically with the body’s systems?

o Will interactions with the body be harmless or could they cause acute or chronic adverse effects?

o How will material containing nanotubes be safely disposed of?

There are, of course, no sure answers to these questions at the present time, but they illustrate the issue, and that is that risk managers and underwriters need to be pro-active in their approach to the issue of carbon nanotubes. They need to know what fullerenes, buckyballs, nanocrystals, quantum dots, nanowires and all manner of nanomaterials are, which ones have the potential for long-term deleterious health effects, and which ones are considered benign. (See related text box, “What Does It All Mean,” for definitions.)

As professionals, we cannot afford the same mistakes we made with asbestos.

Society cannot afford not to use nanotechnology, the “wonder” material of the 21st century, but we can’t get it wrong either.

James W. McCleary is senior vice president of W.R. Berkley Corporation, a commercial specialty insurance organization headquartered in Greenwich, Conn.