The use of subatomic materials as microscopic building blocks for thousands of consumer products has turned into a big business so quickly that few are monitoring the so-called nanotechnology's effects on health and the environment.
So Berkeley, Calif.,intends to be the first city to step into the breach and attempt to regulate the nascent but fast-growing industry.
City council is expected Tuesday to amend its hazardous materials law to compel researchers and manufacturers to report what nanotechnology materials they are working with and how they are handling the tiny particles.
The aim of nanotechnology, in the commercial world, is to develop new products and materials by changing or creating materials at the atomic and molecular level. But much of the impact from those developments remains unknown, particularly with regard to possible environmental and health problems.
"The ordinance is quite important, and I think it will be given worldwide attention," said David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, which is funded by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts. "This is a new industry, and there is a lack of federal and state regulations."
Rejeski said thousands of products, from cosmetics to detergents, are manufactured using material constructed Lego-like from particles measuring as small as one-millionth the width of a head of a pin.
There are no known businesses within Berkeley city limits working directly with nanomaterials, and the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, which launched an ambitious nanotechnology department in March, is exempt from local regulations because it is part of the federal Department of Energy.
Lab officials said they intend to work with the city and are confident their own regulations are stringent enough to ensure safety.
These are very complex issues because the science being done is very complex and there are a lot of unknowns," said Mark Alpers, deputy director of the lab's nanotech effort known as the Molecular Foundry. "It's essential that proper precautions are taken while at the same time allowing important research to proceed."
City officials said the new regulation is mostly aimed at monitoring nanotechnology startups and small businesses, rather than the national lab's efforts.
In November, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it was changing federal policy to require that nanotechnology manufacturers provide scientific evidence that their use of so-called "nanosilver" won't harm waterways or public health.
Nanosilver is used to kill germs in shoe liners, food-storage containers, air fresheners, washing machines and other products. It was the first move by the U.S. government to regulate the industry, but most materials won't fall under EPA oversight.
"This actually is a groundbreaking ordinance," Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said during the city's Dec. 5 meeting, when the issue received unanimous support during its preliminary introduction to the city council. "The EPA and the federal government have basically not looked at nano particles."