Cambridge (MA) is home to dozens of scientific and medical research laboratories, as well as several industrial producers working with engineered nanoscale materials.
Materials engineered at the nanoscale measure between 1 to 100 nanometers in at least one dimension (width or length). A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, which is larger than most atoms but smaller than most molecules. At this small size, materials can have different electrical, mechanical, and light-reflecting properties that can be harnessed to produce useful devices in areas as diverse as medicine, alternative energy, agriculture, and consumer goods.
Some of the same properties that make nanoscale materials useful may also pose risks to people and the environment, under specific conditions. Several government-funded laboratories are currently researching the toxicity and safety of nanoscale materials, and some cautionary procedures have been developed for the safe storage and handling of these materials. There is general consensus among toxicologists that further research is needed regarding the characterization, safety, and handling of various engineered nanoscale materials.
In summer 2007, the Cambridge City Manager convened the Cambridge Nanomaterials Advisory Committee, which was charged with developing recommendations for oversight of local nanotechnology activities to protect human health. On behalf of the City Manager, the public health department facilitated six monthly meetings of the committee through January 2008. The committee developed a series of recommendations, which are described in Recommendations for a Municipal Health & Safety Policy for Nanomaterials (PDF).
The Cambridge Public Health Department authored this report and endorses its recommendations. The department is prepared to implement these recommendations in collaboration with other city departments and with institutions and companies that conduct nanoparticle research and manufacturing.
In developing its recommendations, the Nanomaterials Advisory Committee limited the scope of its discussion to the potential health effects of engineered nanoparticles on people who manufacture, process, or conduct research on engineered nanomaterials, or those who reside close to facilities where these activities take place. Larger regulatory questions pertaining to the impact of these materials on the environment and on consumers of nanomaterial-containing products need to be addressed at the state or federal level where such oversight responsibilities traditionally and appropriately sit. This does not preclude the City of Cambridge from helping to improve consumer access to updated information about the safety of nanotech products.
In recognition of the limited health effects data and the absence of a clear consensus on best practices and standards for engineered nanomaterials, the Cambridge Public Health Department, in collaboration with the Cambridge Nanomaterials Advisory Committee, does not recommend that the City Council enact a new ordinance regulating nanotechnology at this time.
The Cambridge Public Health Department, in collaboration with the Cambridge Nanomaterials Advisory Committee, does recommend that the City of Cambridge take the following steps to gain a better understanding of the nature and extent of nanotechnology-related activities now underway within the city, to encourage research institutions and firms within the growing nanotechnology sector to share and improve practices leading to safe management of engineered nanomaterials, and to improve community access to the best available health and safety information as it relates to consumer products containing engineered nanomaterials:
- Establish an inventory of facilities that manufacture, handle, process, or store engineered nanoscale materials in the city, in cooperation with the Cambridge Fire Department and the Local Emergency Planning Committee.
- Offer technical assistance, in collaboration with academic and nanotechnology sector partners, to help firms and institutions evaluate their existing health and safety plans for limiting risk to workers involved in nanomaterials research and manufacturing.
- Offer up-to-date health information to residents on products containing nanomaterials and sponsor public outreach events.
- Track rapidly changing developments in research concerning possible health risks from various engineered nanoscale materials.
- Track the evolving status of regulations and best practices concerning engineered nanoscale materials among state and federal agencies, and international health and industry groups.
- Report back to City Council every other year on the changing regulatory and safety landscape is it relates to the manufacture, use, and investigation of nanomaterials.
Posted on July 28, 2008