Where federal regulators dare not tread.

Published December 12, 2006 11:02PM (EST)

As soon as I saw the title of the Associated Press wire story, "Berkeley to be first city to regulate nanotechnology," I knew it was going to be winging around the world faster than you can say, "Berkeley votes to impeach President Bush." News editors just can't get enough of wacky "Berzerkeley" stories.

And I'll concede, there is something delightfully science-fictionish about the Berkeley Municipal Code being rewritten to require toxicology reports on "manufactured nanoparticles" -- defined "as a particle with one axis less than 100 nanometers in length." Is this really something that should be in the purview of a city council to decide? The AP reports that "there are no known businesses within Berkeley city limits working directly with nanomaterials" but that "city officials said the new regulation is mostly aimed at monitoring nanotechnology startups and small businesses." But wouldn't any prospective nanoparticle-using start-ups just steer clear of Berkeley as soon as they learned about the ordinance? Federal action, not municipal, is clearly required for effective nanotechnology regulation.

On the other hand, as Mother Jones acknowledged when contemplating the impeach Bush measure placed on the ballot in November, Berkeley was the "[F]irst city to desegregate its public schools, first to establish curbside recycling, first to divest itself of investments in South Africa, first to establish a citizens' police review commission, first to ban Styrofoam containers and first to mandate curb cuts for disabled access." That's not so bad. You gotta start somewhere.

But what is really telling is a comment made during public discussion of the measure by Don Medley, manager of government and community relations for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. LBNL, as part of the federal Department of Energy, is exempt from local regulation. According to the minutes of a Sept. 7 meeting of Berkeley's Community Environmental Advisory Commission, Medley said that LBNL could not endorse the nanoparticle motion, that "research conducted at the Molecular Foundry will use less than one pound of manufactured nano-sized materials annually," and that the laboratory, "does not have sufficient funding to conduct extensive health and safety research into nanoparticles."

Huh. A pound may not sound like very much, but when you're talking about nanoparticles, I'll bet we're talking about quite a few. More to the point, since when does a lack of funding for health and safety research serve as an excuse for not endorsing the necessity of health and safety regulation. That's crazy talk!

If the only result of the Berkeley ordinance is that it casts a harsh light on the fact that the federal government isn't funding enough research into the potential hazards of nanoparticles then my kooky little town is doing us all a great big service.

UPDATE: A reader notes that Madison, Wisconsin boasts the first curbside recycling program, dating back to 1968. Berkeley's did not begin until 1973.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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