Every emerging risk strategy must begin with a horizon scan. At Praedicat, our strategy is to scan the scientific literature for indications that scientists are investigating a new hypothesis that some commercial activity or product might cause bodily injury.
Executive SummaryWhat’s interesting to scientists should always be of interest to liability insurers. That’s the message that Praedicat executives deliver as they review some of the “emerging interest” risks being investigated in a small but growing volume of toxicology and environmental literature. Among the risks are chemicals that may be persistent, mobile and toxic—plasticizers, insecticides and fungicides—and food emulsifiers, all of which are subjects of new hypotheses linking them to health consequences.
We call the risks identified at the literature horizon “emerging interest” risks. Scientists’ interest may result in literature growing from a small number of articles into a large literature (which we call “emerging damage”) and ultimately to the point when scientific evidence could be admitted in “emerging litigation.”
The toxicology and environmental literatures are filled with tens of thousands of hypotheses, and at least a dozen completely new hypotheses hit the major scientific journals every year. Most of them will never become large literatures, and obviously fewer will become involved in mass torts. But interest to scientists should always imply interest to liability insurers.
We call the emerging interest phase the “time to prepare.” It is the time that insurers should evaluate and monitor their portfolios for potential accumulation risks. If the literatures progress to the emerging damage or litigation stages, and if the insurance is written on the occurrence form, additional policy years will only add to the accumulation. It is also the time to begin dialogue with clients about their product stewardship efforts or their environmental, health and safety programs. The manufacturers should be expected to know about the risk if it is published in a scientific journal, and the businesses downstream will benefit from their insurer’s insights that come before underwriting action is required.
In previous installments of this column, we’ve discussed emerging litigation agents, like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and emerging damage risks, including radiofrequency exposure, antibiotic overprescription and melamine. All of these were emerging interest agents at some point in the past. All of them are now at the stage that insurers should be considering immediate underwriting actions.
In this installment, we will draw attention to several risks that are on the literature horizon and have newly entered the emerging interest stage.
Scientists and environmental activists have been paying more attention to so-called “PMT” chemicals—those that are persistent in the environment, mobile in water, and toxic to humans or animals. PMT chemicals are not currently regulated explicitly, although there are proposals to treat them the same as PBT chemicals that bioaccumulate rather than flow easily around the world.
The first PMT chemical that has begun to attract scientific attention is N-butyl benzyl sulfonamide (NBBS). NBBS is a plasticizer commonly used to keep plastics soft, but unlike their phthalate counterparts, they are used in different resins like polyacetals, polyamides and polycarbonates. Items made from these plastics include kitchen utensils, consumer electronics, food-contact film and carpet. The potential for widespread exposure and the environmental persistence of NBBS has led scientists to start exploring its toxic effects. Thus far, they’ve published studies looking at kidney, neurological and developmental injuries.
A second emerging interest stage PMT risk is an insecticide called fipronil. This is one of the newer insecticides available and has been used extensively on crops around the world. Closer to home, this is also one of the most commonly used ingredients in flea collars and treatments for pets. Aside from the few studies conducted right around the time fipronil was approved for use in the mid-1990s, there has been little interest in studying its toxicity until recently, when scientists published studies showing it may have neurotoxic effects in mice. Furthermore, the United States Geological Survey conducted a study of streams in the U.S. and found fipronil was present in 20 percent of streams nationwide. This also illustrates an important feature of PMT chemicals: Their mobility means they can easily get into waterways and are very difficult to remove. If either of these chemicals are found to pose significant human health or environmental risk, the cleanup costs could be significant.
Sticking to the pesticide theme, the next risk we highlight is a class of fungicides called strobilurins. This includes some of the most commonly used fungicides, like azoxystrobin, kresoxim-methyl and pyraclostrobin. Like many other pesticides, strobilurins were first discovered in nature and then adapted to create commercially useful versions. In the 25 years since approval, strobilurins have found myriad uses on crops but also are used now as a prophylactic treatment for wallboard used in housing construction. One recent paper showed that these fungicides seep out of the wallboard and get incorporated into house dust, which often leads to significant risk of human exposure.
Much of the toxicology literature to date has focused on their effects on zebrafish, an organism that is commonly used to evaluate ecological toxicity. Because strobilurins are used on crops, they are often found in the environment. This class of fungicide does not always break down completely during food processing, meaning that we may be exposed to more of it than regulators expect. Insufficient regulation of potentially toxic substances leaves a wider window for liability to manifest at such time that these compounds are found to be toxic at common exposure levels.
The last class of risk we’ll discuss in this article is food emulsifiers. These food additives are used to improve the texture of food and keep mixtures of oil and water from separating. They are used in all sorts of food, including ice cream, salad dressings, cottage cheese, frozen foods and baked goods. They’re also commonly used in personal care products like toothpaste. Three of these emulsifiers have attracted scientific attention recently: carrageenan, carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80. When used according to FDA regulation, these additives are considered safe based on the results of regulatory studies; however, recent attention being paid to the gut microbiome and its effects on human health suggests that perhaps they are not as safe as we thought.
Recent studies suggest that emulsifiers can interact with the cells lining our gut and with the gut microbiome to both initiate and spur on inflammation. Inflammation in the gut is a known cause of intestinal cancer alongside other inflammatory bowel diseases like celiac disease.
Like other food additives considered “safe,” we are only now beginning to learn about some of the effects they have on the cellular and molecular level in our bodies. We should expect to see additional studies, probably in mice and rats, looking at whether doses corresponding to realistic human exposures to these emulsifiers is linked with intestinal cancer. One final track of this research seeks to understand how different chemicals interact in our guts, and a startling recent finding shows that polysorbate-80 consumption can disturb the intestinal barrier to the point where we will absorb a phthalate plasticizer—DEHP, an emerging damage risk—more efficiently into our bodies when both are in our food.
All of these risks are currently in the emerging interest phase, and some may evolve to become emerging litigation agents. Of course, before that happens, almost all risks will spend at least some time in the emerging damage phase, where active management of underwriting and risk appetite is critical to overall enterprise risk management. When any of these risks move into the emerging damage phase, you can expect to read about it here.