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Posted on July 30, 2008 at 7:43 AM

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies announced yesterday that another city, following the lead of Berkeley, California, has taken action at the local level to promote the safe use of nanotechnologies in the absence of federal regulations regarding the research and development of nanoparticles and their related technologies.

On July 28th, the City of Cambridge Health Department recommended to its city council that they become better informed about the risks and safe uses and safe disposal of nanoparticles.

The Project of Emerging Nanotechnologies, sponsored by the Pew Foundation and others, has also issued a report for state and local governments to help educate them on how they might take proactive steps to ensure that nanotechnology research and development as well as manufacturing is taking place safely in their communities.

It is clear that that with the Federal government moving at a snail’s pace to regulate nanotechnologies in any arena, particularly in regard to environmental health and safetey, worker safety, and other important areas where considerable justice arguments are at stake. First, the Federal government is pouring billions of dollars each year into the National Nanotechnology Initiative for R&D, yet is dedicating just the tiniest fraction to environmental or workplace health and safety (the back of the napkin calculation estimates that with some NSF, NIOSH, and EPA funding going to these areas the 2008 NNI allocation is less than 5%). Thus, it will take years for there to be any data at all upon which to make intelligent regulations for the workplace or the environment.

But this also is true for state and local governments who are flying just as blind in the absence of data about what kinds of nanoparticles to regulate, where, and why. Yet, the nanotechnology industry is booming in California, New York, Massachussetts, and is forming the backbone of economic development plans like the state of Georgia and Pennsylvania.

(Note: I’m not even mentioning the whole other area of nanotechnology regulation in the Food and Drug Administration and the use of nanoparticles in pharmaceuticals and consumer products…that’s a whole other regulatory stalemate that may take a long time to find the right balance of acceptable risk and regulatory oversight.)

So where does that leave us? For starters, a few smart people in places on opposite sides of the country have the idea–we first need to start with education and awareness about what nanotechnology is, where it’s being done in our communities, and to have informed, intelligent discussion about what we know the risks to be (at least right now, with the data we have).

We can’t ask state and local governments to do more than that nor should we at this point. Until we know we have something to fear from nanotechnology in our backyard, let’s not let uninformed legislatures or city councilmen or any activist group demonize promising science. At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt if the Feds put a little more cash toward finding out about the risks of nanotechnology, particularly to the workers who handle these hundreds of different kinds of particles each day, those persons who live near institutions that will have to dispose of nanoparticles, and your average person who might without even knowing it be using products that contain nanoparticles that someday, we might learn, are hazardous to our health.

So for now, fear nano not–but don’t hold your breath waiting for the Federal government to pass comprehensive nanotechnology regulations any time soon.

Summer Johnson, PhD

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