Commentary: Transparency Needed in Berkeley Lab Nanotechnology By Michael W. Toffel

Tuesday November 29, 2005

On Dec. 6, the Berkeley City Council will consider asking the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL) to be significantly more transparent about the health and environmental issues associated with its new nanotechnology facility. 

LBL will open its new Molecular Foundry “Nanostructures User Laboratory” in early 2006. This facility is being built to promote basic research into the “design, synthesis and characterization of nanoscale materials.” While nanotechnologies offer new promising opportunities for a host of applications from solar energy to more sophisticated cancer biopsies, there are as yet no standards or regulations—at the local, state, federal or international levels—that govern the safe handling of nanoparticles. Given the protests of some Berkeley citizens concerned about the potential environmental and health impacts of this new technology, and the utter lack of regulatory or industry standards, one might assume that the Lab would be particularly forthcoming about how they plan to stay in front of this issue. But sadly, you would be wrong. 

Over a year ago, I asked some basic questions of the lab’s community relations officer and director of environment, health and safety. Essentially, I asked if they could publicly articulate the potential impacts their new nanoscale operations might impose on Berkeley’s community health and environment, the steps they would be taking to mitigate these impacts, and how the lab planned to keep abreast of the health and environmental issues associated with this emerging science. My primary motivation was to encourage the Lab to be more transparent with the community about these issues. For whatever reasons, the lab decided not to reply to my request. After receiving no reply, I asked the City of Berkeley’s Community Environmental Advisory Commission (CEAC), of which I am a member, to consider a draft motion calling for the City Council to ask a similar set of questions. This motion simply asks LBL to: 

1. Publicly disclose how they are identifying the risks to community health and the environment associated with their new nanotechnology activities. 

2. How they are using external experts (of their own choosing) to validate this process. 

3. What measures they are taking to ensure these risks are being managed properly. 

4. How they will keep updated on this evolving science. 

5. How they will inform the public about all this. 

CEAC passed the motion handily: the one commissioner who opposed the motion subsequently offered alternative questions that also ask the lab to be more transparent about how they plan to protect the community’s health and the environment. I view these questions as fundamental, basic, and fair. Apparently, the city manager’s office agrees, as it also supports this proposal. The Berkeley City Council will consider this motion on Dec. 6. 

I would have hoped that the lab would have publicly disclosed this information on its own—without the need for prompting from me, CEAC, or the council. Why not? The lab’s apparent reluctance to deal forthrightly with this issue could be justified by two positions, and neither is a particularly comforting scenario. First, perhaps the lab is still figuring out what policies and procedures it will implement to safeguard community health and the environment. This is plausible given so little is actually known about these concerns and the utter lack of regulations and industry standards. But shouldn’t the Lab be forthright about this? The Lab could publicly acknowledge what it does and does not know, and only permit research to be conducted where they are quite sure about the potential impacts and the appropriate protective measures to take. If they are unsure about the risks, don’t the members of their surrounding community deserve the right to know this? After all, the Department of Energy’s national labs across the nation have a poor record of taking the necessary precautions to protect their surroundings. Thus, current public distrust of a national lab’s deployment of new technologies is understandable. What is less understandable is LBL’s current implied stance “Trust Me.” One would have hoped that lab managers would have learned that a lack of transparency about the measures employed to protect their surrounding environment only feeds distrust. 

A second potential scenario that might explain the lab’s reluctant to be more transparent is disturbing for other reasons. Perhaps lab managers know all about the risks of their new nanoscale activities and have developed world-class measures to mitigate these risks, but are simply unwilling to publicly disclose them. One might expect a lack of transparency from private firms, but I think we deserve better from the government agencies we all pay for, whether it be national labs, state universities, or city agencies. I should add that it seems unlikely that the lab has all the answers about how to identify and mitigate the health and environmental aspects associated with nanotechnologies, given the fundamental questions US EPA is currently asking. LBL’s community relations and government affairs representatives have, to their credit, attended CEAC meetings. However, they have expressed a wide array of perspectives that ranged from (and I’m paraphrasing here): “The questions you’re asking cannot possibly be answered by anyone because the knowledge is not there yet on this cutting edge issue,” to “We have already answered these questions,” to “It is unreasonable to expect us to answer these questions.” As a former industrial manager of environment, health and safety, and an academic researcher studying corporate environmental management, I can say with some confidence that the questions that CEAC has proposed are not particularly unusual. Any industrial organization should be quite aware of their potential impacts on community health and the environment, and should be able to articulate the measures they are taking to mitigate those risks. Responsible companies should ask and answer these questions —without prompting from city commissions or city councils, before their activities commence. 

I am not one who thinks LBL is at the center of any conspiracies. Nonetheless, I find their failure to respond to these basic questions about this emerging science—and their representatives’ referring to these questions as unanswerable and unreasonable—to be quite troubling. Berkeley deserves better. We’ll see if Berkeley City Council agrees when they consider the motion on Dec. 6. 


Michael W. Toffel is chairman of the City of Berkeley’s Community Environmental Advisory Commission, and a post-doctoral researcher at the UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. This commentary reflects his personal opinions and not necessarily those of either organization.Ã