May 22, 2008, Cambridge – May 22, 2008, Cambridge – How should the members of the Public Health Department in a big city regulate nanotechnology? Given the uncertainty of the safety of such a science, what are the best steps to take to protect and inform citizens of environmental, health, and safety concerns? What if this city was renowned internationally for its technology industry?Todd Kuiken, a research associate for the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, then spoke on the burgeoning market for nanotechnology-based consumer goods.
Kuiken noted how products “tend to answer the concerns, needs and desires of a society. For instance, if you want your sunscreen to go on clear, then nanotechnology has the ability to do that. It can keep your socks from smelling. It can keep your food fresher longer, store more songs on your ipod.”
Kuiken then drew attention to the rising trend of nanotechnology in consumer products. Given that over the past two years, the amount of products with nanotechnology has risen 185% and that by 2014, the market for nanotechnology will be over 2 trillion dollars, “the economic train… has already left the station,” according to Kuiken. “The question is whether we drive that train off the tracks or lead it down a smooth path.” The need for regulation of nanomanufactured products must thus take place in the context of economic growth, rather then for research purposes alone.
Before playing the part of city administrators, the several dozen forum members were appraised of the current state of affairs in Cambridge, whose own Public Health Department is considering city-wide standards for companies using nanotechnology in their products and manufacturing processes.
Sam Lipson, Director of Environmental Health for the Public Health Department in Cambridge, first gave a history of how the City of Cambridge has dealt with the regulation of emerging technologies. In the 1970s, when the biotechnology sector emerged in Cambridge, both City officials and companies sought to establish guidelines to ensure safety and allow for growth of the industry within city borders.
The City of Cambridge used National Institute of Health guidelines as a framework to establish what was reasonable to expect from companies utilizing the then nascent technology of gene-splicing. The city ordinance created a “citizen’s committee” to review permits which allowing companies to engage in genetic engineering in the city. It was “a radical experiment [in citizen involvement] to a degree that perhaps is not familiar to people today,” noted Lipson.
According to Lipson’s analysis of the issue, the concern over the dangers of biotechnology has dissipated as a result of the creation of a citizen’s oversight process in Cambridge. People working for both the city and participating labs decided it was important to have meaningful oversight as a line of accountability, which to Lipson “was the greatest value, not just for the people living and working in the city, but for the sector itself…Companies were encouraged that the city had already gone through the debate, [and that] it was a sign of stability and maturity from a policy point of view.”
“There will be greater and greater reasons to be assured about the safety of materials going forward,” Lipson continued, “but there will be occasional reason to be concerned. This uncertainty is hard to deal with on a local public policy level, but we believe that it is critical to work with the sector to [establish] best practices standards to be as efficient as possible, but to make sure no harm comes from [the industry].”