By John C. Monica, Jr. and Igor Linkov

Cambridge is well known for its top research universities and cutting edge biotech businesses. The City is also well known for its proactive approach to regulatory and public health issues. Cambridge’s City Council recently asked its City Manager to evaluate whether the City needs a new ordinance aimed at any potential environmental, health, and safety concerns arising from the manufacture or use of engineered nanoscale materials within city limits.  The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has identified about a dozen businesses located in Cambridge that manufacture or use nanoscale materials in their operations.  At the same time, potential nano-related EHS concerns have made news headlines over the past couple of years.  The City Council was concerned about scientific reports that certain nanoscale materials may have toxic effects in some laboratory settings.  While the jury is still out on whether the use of nanoscale materials actually poses an increased risk to human health or the environment in everyday settings, the City Council wanted to address the issue in a forward thinking manner.

To this end, the City Manager asked Cambridge’s Director of Environmental Health to analyze the issue and provide a recommended course of action.  The Director has convened a six-month advisory panel comprised of Cambridge citizens, University experts, private consulting firms, lawyers, industry representatives, and non-governmental organizations to help him provide the City Manager with a list of well-reasoned options concerning whether the City actually needs a new ordinance, and if so, what it should look like.  The seventeen member advisory panel will hear experts speak on a range of issues including the state of scientific studies on nano-related EHS issues, how existing federal and state laws may or may not be sufficient to address these concerns, and how any potential new ordinance may adversely affect fledgling nano-businesses within the community.  The Director of Environmental Health with the panel will then use the information to craft a set of recommendations for the City Manager to review, modify, and possibly present to the City Council.

The City faces a tough task.  The field of nanotechnology evolves very quickly and new products and materials are being continuously added to commerce and research.  Properties of nanomaterials are highly variable and the scale of potential health impacts associated with their use is uncertain.  Many federal and state governments have sponsored research projects to develop information pertinent to risk assessment and nanomaterials governance.  No consensus has developed.

The advisory panel has already met three times, and the entire process is currently scheduled to wrap up in January or February 2008.  The panel has a lot of ground to cover in a relatively short period of time.  The City appears determined to develop an ordinance based on scientifically rigorous standards that is also practical and acceptable to local stakeholders and the business community.  Based on its first three meetings, the panel seems well aware of its responsibility to balance the uncertainty of whether certain nanoscale materials may pose EHS risks against the certainty that needless over regulation may stifle business development.