The Cambridge City Council is considering a law to regulate the use of super-small nanoparticles in research and manufacturing. If the council decides to act, it will make Cambridge the second city in the United States, after Berkeley, Calif., to regulate nanotechnology.
"We hope that nanotech is going to be a big part of new industry in Cambridge," said council member Henrietta Davis. But Davis said the city should make sure that nano-based businesses ply their trade safely. "It's not my intention to stifle it," she said. "It's more to be proactive."
The efforts in Cambridge and Berkeley underscore growing concern about health and environmental risks from nanoparticles, which are used in an increasing number of manufactured goods.
Certain materials, such as carbon, acquire unusual and useful properties when fabricated into particles of 100 nanometers or smaller. Carbon nanotubes, for example, can be used to make extremely strong but flexible materials, and are turning up in bicycle frames and bullet-resistant T-shirts.
But these materials also behave differently when they are reduced to tiny particles, and there has been little research into their effects on living organisms, if inhaled or ingested, or their effect on the environment.
"Nanomaterials are not well understood," said Sam Lipson , director of environmental health at the Cambridge Public Health Department. "There is an enormous area of uncertainty and unanswered questions."
Agencies of the federal government are just beginning to study the matter. They must also decide whether new regulations are needed, or whether nanoparticles are covered by existing safety regulations.
The Environmental Protection Agency last year said it would regulate nanosilver -- super-small silver particles used as a disinfecting agent in shoe liners and washing machine tubs. There's no explicit EPA regulation covering nanosilver particles, but the agency concluded that existing pesticide regulations could be applied to the material.
Meanwhile the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is studying whether exposure to nanoparticles poses a risk to factory workers.
"We're looking at questions of exposure in real workplace settings," said institute spokesman Fred Blosser .
Igor Linkov , managing scientist at Intertox Inc., a technology consulting firm in Brookline, said there is some evidence that nanoparticles could pose health risks. He cited a study that found that rats developed scar tissue when liquid mixed with carbon nanoparticles was sprayed into their lungs. But Linkov said far more research is needed before jumping to conclusions about the safety of nanoparticles.
"We know that some nanomaterials, at some point during their life cycle, may pose risks," said Linkov. "We really cannot quantify how high the risk is."
On Jan. 8, the Cambridge City Council voted to ask Lipson to study the nanotechnology regulation enacted in Berkeley last year, and recommend a similar statute for Cambridge. Under the Berkeley law, companies and research labs that make nanoparticles, or use them in manufacturing or research, must disclose that fact to the city government. In addition, the users must provide information on any known health or safety risks posed by the nanomaterial, and must report on how the materials will be handled, stored, and disposed of. The City Council ordered Lipson to study the Berkeley law and determine whether it makes sense to draw up a similar statute.
"They're not getting too far ahead of themselves" in Berkeley, said Lipson. "They haven't put out a series of restraints on research and development of these materials."
Lipson also noted that, three decades ago, Cambridge was the first US city to regulate recombinant DNA research, used by scientists to create custom-tailored life forms. Despite the regulation, Cambridge is a leading biotech research center , he said.
Davis said prospects for a nanotech ordinance are good. "If it comes from the Public Health Department, I think it's pretty likely to be passed," she said. "The standard having been set by Berkeley, we will probably do something very similar to them."
But Greg Schmergel, chief executive of Nantero Inc., a Woburn company that designs nanotube-based microchips, said the Berkeley law is poorly drafted and unnecessary. "Nanoparticles are covered under the same regulations that larger particles are covered under," he said.
Adding a new layer of regulation will only burden businesses with extra costs and legal hassles, according to Schmergel. For example, he said, the Berkeley law doesn't include a definition of nanoparticles. That could lead to long and costly battles over how to interpret the law.
The move by Cambridge to adopt a similar law also troubles Schmergel, who wondered if businesses will have to comply with dozens or hundreds of local nanotech laws. "Should every town, based on no information at all, start making their own regulations?" he said.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at email@example.com.