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Posted: July 28, 2008
Report urges Cambridge not to enact nanoparticle regulations
(Nanowerk News) The City of Cambridge should not enact an ordinance to regulate the use of nanoparticles, according to a report to be released today by the city's public health department. Instead, the city should collect information on a voluntary basis from businesses and researchers who work with nanoparticles, the report says.
"Until you know more about what's going on, plowing ahead with a regulatory requirement might overshoot the mark," said Sam Lipson, the director of environmental health at the Cambridge Public Health Department.
Nanoparticles are atoms or molecules that are 100 nanometers or smaller in size - 1,000 times thinner than a typical sheet of paper. Common materials assume valuable new properties when manufactured as nanoparticles. For example, carbon can be formed into cylindrical "nanotubes" to make extremely strong and lightweight products, like high-priced bicycle frames. Nanoparticles are also used in skin creams and stain-resistant clothing, and electronics companies are working on nanoparticle-based solar cells and memory chips.
But environmentalists and government officials say too little is known about how exposure to nanoparticles might affect humans.
In 2006, Berkeley, Calif., became the first US city to regulate nanoparticles as potentially hazardous chemicals. The Berkeley ordinance requires that companies and research labs tell the city how much of the material is stored on their premises on a typical day, where the material came from, what it's used for, and anything they know about how the material can affect human health and the environment.
In January 2007, the Cambridge City Council asked the health department to study the Berkeley ordinance and report on whether Cambridge should enact a similar regulation. A committee headed by Lipson met with officials from companies involved in nanotechnology, researchers from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and environmental health and safety specialists. The committee concluded that there isn't enough information about the health effects of nanoparticles to justify a law to regulate their use.
For instance, Lipson said a scientific study detected health problems in rats that had nanoparticles injected into the linings of their lungs. But he said such a test provides no insights on how the particles would affect a person who merely inhaled them. Lipson said such research is needed, but has not yet been done. "We're just at too early a point to expect that kind of literature to be available," he said.
Future scientific discoveries may justify tougher regulation of nanoparticles, Lipson said. He wants the health department to issue updates of the report every two years. Meanwhile, the committee will call for a voluntary program to take an inventory of Cambridge businesses and research labs that work with nanoparticles. The list would be compiled with help from the Cambridge Fire Department, which already keeps track of hazardous chemicals stored by companies.
The committee also suggests that the public health and fire departments devise a program to inform businesses and researchers of the latest health and safety information about nanoparticles. The program would also help nanoparticle users develop safe material handling and storage practices. In addition, the committee recommends a public education program to inform citizens about safety issues related to nano materials.