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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

High Security Lab Plans Draw Community Protests in Boston

Air Date: Week of

Part 1: Anthrax, Ebola and other pathogens could be steps away from residents in the environmental justice community of Roxbury, Massachusetts; that's if the plan for a new, high-security biolab is approved for Boston University's Medical Center. Officials there say the lab would be airtight, and that researchers wearing moon suits would essentially be working in a bunker within a bunker. But these assurances have done little to lessen community fears of a possible biological escape. Host Bruce Gellerman visits the proposed site and meets with the people on either side of the biolab fence. Part 2: Living on Earth's Jeff Young takes us on a tour of the country's oldest high level biolab at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The scientists there say they've worked with scary germs like Ebola and anthrax for 35 years with no real problems.


GELLERMAN: Coming up...Is it safe? Some Boston residents question whether a new, high tech biodefense lab in their neighborhood will make them more or less secure. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Ravi Shankar "Title" Exotic Sounds From Many Worlds (Milan) 1996]

GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman.

This is a story about a minority community, national security, high tech laboratories and what scientists call "select agents." Now, don't let the innocent sounding name fool you. Select agents are the most dangerous organisms on earth - among them Ebola, anthrax, Lassa fever and plague. In the wrong hands, these pathogens could wreak unspeakable havoc.

Since 9-11, the Bush administration has increased funding for biodefense research more than 18 fold from 400 million dollars to more than seven and a half billion dollars a year.

BUSH: Bioterrorism is a real threat to our country. It's a threat to every nation that loves freedom. Terrorist groups seek biological weapons; we know some rogue states already have them.

GELLERMAN: Much of the government's funding has gone to build eight regional centers for biodefense research and six new proposed super secure laboratories known as BSL - Biosafety Level 4 labs. One of them is slated for Boston.

Dr. Mark Klempner, associate provost at Boston University Medical School, is head of the project to build a BSL-4 , in the city's South End.

KLEMPNER: It is designed in a way to absolutely maximize safety and decontaminatabilty. Probably, the easiest way to think about this is a BSL-4 laboratory is an airtight box within another box within the building.

GELLERMAN: Or a bunker within a bunker. The proposed BSL-4 at Boston University would be state-of-the-art with seven layers of security protecting the building alone. The lab would be equipped with airlocks, chemical showers, filters, fumigation devices and intense heat sterilizers, all designed to protect workers from the deadly pathogens inside.

Boston residents voice their opposition against Boston University’s proposed bio-lab. (Photo courtesy of Alternatives for Community & Environment.)

Because of all the security, BSL-4 labs don't come cheap. Dr. Klempner says the price tag for Boston University's is 170 million dollars, about two-thirds of that is federal money.

KLEMPNER: There was a very vigorous competition to try and win this project and we feel very fortunate to have come out on top of that competition. We think the 'why Boston?' response has been a very, very convincing argument to the scientific community.

GELLERMAN: The scientific community, perhaps, but not residents of the nearby community of Roxbury, Massachusetts.

FELICIANO: We was like, what? Why here? We have all these people around.

GELLERMAN: Alma Feliciano is a member of Safety Net. It's a Roxbury community organization fighting to keep the high security lab out of their backyard.

(Photo courtesy of Alternatives for Community & Environment.)

FELICIANO: One day we just got a call. We just got together. We all got dressed and we're going. And, when we got there, all we saw was, like, people in suits looking good and we were like, 'oh my God, are we allowed to come to this meeting?' We all looked at each other but we sat right in the back and they started naming Ebola, anthrax, and we was all looking at each other, what is that, what is that? And, we started asking questions, 'what do that mean, what is this, what are you all building and why you all bringing it to our neighborhood?' So, he says, 'get somebody smarter than you all' and we got hurt. Our feeling got hurt. We went downstairs, we hold hands together, the whole group, and said 'we're going to tell everybody and their momma in the whole Boston area about what's going on.'

GELLERMAN: And, they did. The community mobilized and Safety Net is now suing Boston University and the city's zoning board, which recently approved the high-security biolab. Safety Net charges the final environmental impact statement for the lab doesn't consider alternative sites as required by law. In fact, in analyzing potential risks to the region, the report doesn't even mention Roxbury.

AGUILAR [IN CAR]: This area used to be Roxbury, now they call it the South End.

GELLERMAN: I recently toured the proposed site for the lab with Tomas Aguilar. He works with the Roxbury group called ACE, Alternatives for Community and Environment. ACE opposes Boston University's biodefense lab.

AGUILAR: Across the big street, like over here, is the jail. Coming up here, see all this construction? This is part of the Biosquare, the Boston University Biosquare.

GELLERMAN: Biosquare is where Boston University wants to build the quarter of a million square foot high-security lab. It's a gentrified area with renovated Victorian-row houses and modern brick research buildings. Nearby is Boston's largest homeless shelter and the city's wholesale flower market. Across an open field is Roxbury.

AGUILAR: This whole area --you can take a right here, if you can--this whole area is becoming high priced, but mixed in this area are housing, public housing complexes.

GELLERMAN: Roxbury has more than its share of pollution and environmental problems. Eight of Boston's nine trash transfer stations are here and there are abandoned lots loaded with asbestos and lead. The asthma rate in Roxbury is five times the state average, the worst in Massachusetts. The state has designated Roxbury an "environmental justice community." It's a special status to help Roxbury recover environmentally.

AGUILAR: And up here, where the bus is turning, this is a dead end. That's a parking lot right now, but that's going to be part of this big complex for the, what we call, "the bioterror lab."

GELLERMAN: Now, you call it "bioterror." They call it a "biodefense" lab.

AGUILAR: Yeah, they call it biosafety, biocontainment lab. That's all fine, but it has nothing to do with the reality that this is a Defense Department project.

GELLERMAN: In fact, it's not a Defense Department project. Boston University's BSL-4 lab, like most of the nation's biodefense projects, is funded through one of the National Institutes of Health. Again, Dr. Klempner of Boston University.

KLEMPNER: We have nothing to hide in this laboratory. The work will not be classified research and our intention is to be responsive to the community in that way.

GELLERMAN [TO KLEMPNER]: The question that these people in the neighborhood are asking, 'why here? '

KLEMPNER: I would say that these laboratories have been safe wherever they've been put. Whether they've been put in a remote location or they have been in a downtown location, that has been their history. And, most importantly, one needs to assemble the people, the scientists, who can do the work in this kind of an institute and I can't think of a better place.

GELLERMAN: And nearby residents will benefit, says Dr.Klempner. Building the BSL-4 lab will employ thirteen hundred construction workers and create hundreds of new jobs, but Roxbury activist Tomas Aguilar isn't buying it.

AGUILAR: Break it down a bit, the bottom line. You need people to clean those cages to take care of those animals that they're testing, you know, with Ebola and all that. They need people to mop the floors and empty, right? Think about it.

GELLERMAN: Residents in Davis, California thought about it and recently defeated a bid by the University of California to build a government-funded BSL-4 lab in their community. One of their arguments: a high-security lab doesn't belong in an urban area. Another proposed site for a Level 4 lab that's met with community opposition is Hamilton, Montana, population four thousand.

Tomas Aguilar says in Roxbury there are 17 thousand people per square mile.


GELLERMAN: The proposed super secure biodefense lab would be built right under the flight path of nearby Boston Logan Airport. Aguilar worries that putting the laboratory here makes the place a target for terrorists. Boston University's environmental impact statement says little about terrorism, but another report for a similar lab in Maryland says there's nothing to worry about.

GELLERMAN [TO AGUILAR]: I was reading the environmental impact statement. They calculate that one plane crash into this building every 38,000 years....

AGUILAR: Yeah, well, the thing with statistics. Look at, I wonder what the statistics were that both twin towers were going to be taken out? Who would have thought the odds? They were probably astronomical. Accidents happen. Not only did all these things happen while the public was debating this whole issue of transparency, not only did all this happen, but then, they hide it.

GELLERMAN: Last summer and fall, accidents did happen. Three Boston University medical researchers working with tularemia, in a BSL-2 lab, contracted the disease. They thought they were working with a safe strain of the bacterium. Turns out, they weren't. The university researchers survived and state and city health officials were notified, but the public wasn't told, nor were the officials who were reviewing Boston University's final environmental impact report. Unaware of the accidental infections, they approved BU's application for the lab. Again, Dr. Mark Klempner.

KLEMPNER: The risks in the BioSafety Level-4 labs are to the workers in those laboratories. We acknowledge it. We will do everything we can to minimize it. But, the history says that the risks to the community and to the environment have been and theoretically are negligible.

GELLERMAN: The worst biolab accident happened in 1979 in Sverdlovsk. Sixty-four residents of the Soviet city died after researchers working with anthrax in aerosol accidentally released spores into the air.

Dr. Matthew Meselson co-directs a Harvard University program on chemical and biological weapons. He investigated the Soviet disaster for the CIA.

MESELSON: Now, there are some things that should be done in the city. They shouldn't do anything with aerosols because aerosols travel. That's what the Soviets did with their anthrax epidemic. They had this in the city, ha, that's what they did.

GELLERMAN: And, that is precisely what BU plans to do.

KLEMPNER: We will definitely have an aerobiology unit in the laboratories. It will be one of the core facilities.

GELLERMAN: Biolab Chief Dr. Mark Klempner says the public will never be at risk from aerosols tested in the lab.

KLEMPNER: That is a very important part of the research because many
infectious diseases, especially those that can create the greatest epidemics, are aerosol transmitted. And so, I think it is smart to understand exactly how these infectious agents get deposited in the lungs. So, I think there's a lot to be done and learned in the name of the public's health through an aerobiology program.

OZONOFF: Actually, I was a proponent of this laboratory initially.

GELLERMAN: Dr. David Ozonoff, a professor of public health at Boston University, supported the BSL-4 lab on campus but now, he's one of its strongest critics.

OZONOFF: A laboratory that's got an aerosol facility, that has animal facilities, has all the earmarks of an offensive biological weapons facility. What's really happened is that funds for local public health and state public health are being cut, bread and butter public health, maternal and child health, substance abuse, immunization programs. At the same time, money is flying in to do biodefense. And, we have a massive shifting of priorities and that's what is going on in public health in this country.

GELLERMAN: Boston University had hoped to break ground on its high-security lab this spring, but late last month, amid growing community protests, the NIH announced it would issue a new environmental impact report, delaying the project.

Meanwhile, renovations are already underway at the world's largest BSL-4 lab at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland. Living on Earth's Jeff Young recently toured the high security lab at USAMRIID--it's the U.S. Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases--and he has our report.


YOUNG: The cinderblock walls and tile floors of USAMRIID look so ordinary you could mistake it for any hospital or school hall. Until, that is, you get to a thick glass window looking in on a woman in a baby blue moon suit.

VANDER LINDEN : This is a level four suite. This is the lab where a lot of work with Ebola is conducted.


YOUNG: Fort Detrick Press Officer Caree Vander Linden points to the scientist at work on Ebola, one of the most dangerous known viruses. There's a lot of noise, as one of the labs is under renovation. But, the soundtrack of the biolabs is the comforting white noise of pressurized air.


NEGLEY: You hear that the whole time you're working in there.

YOUNG: Biosafety Suite Supervisor Diane Negley has worked here 22 years, much of it in the moon suits and carefully controlled air of the BSL-4. Negley points out features of the suit as we watch her colleague at work.

NEGLEY: We have air going into the suit so it's always being forced out so that we're protected too.

YOUNG: That's the yellow hose I see connected to her...

NEGLEY: Yeah, that's the air line.

YOUNG: Goes down to her waist there, that's pumping air in.

NEGLEY: And, it goes through a HEPA filter before it goes into the suit.

YOUNG: HEPA is high efficiency particle air filter. Air passes through the labs just once and then is filtered before it's released. Any clothing or waste leaving the suite spends hours in an autoclave—a high pressure, high temperature sterilizer. Equipment goes through an airlock filled with formaldehyde gas. The only thing that should get out alive is the scientist in the suit.

NEGLEY: When she leaves working in there, she'll get in the chemical shower and you scrub down. The showers usually last somewhere around five minutes. It's a water, a mist of disinfectant and you scrub and you rinse off again. Then, you can actually step out of the suit.

YOUNG [TO NEGLEY]: And, then what of the water that's used to wash these things down?

NEGLEY: We're always using disinfectant on the inside, too. We don't just pour live virus down the sink; we've killed it first. It goes through a laboratory sewer system that also goes through a sterilization plant before it's released.

YOUNG: Negley jokes and sips on a soda as we look into the room, holding a virus that could bring a horrible disease with no vaccination, no treatment and high mortality. If she seems nonchalant about all this it's because of her high level of confidence in the equipment and people she works with.

NEGLEY: The chance of anything getting out is extremely small. I mean, it's our lives too. So, we want to make sure that there are no escapes because you know we're gonna be the first ones and we don't wanna be connected with that.

YOUNG: But some wonder if Fort Detrick is sometimes the cause of a problem instead of a cure. In the wake of the still unsolved anthrax attacks of 2001, the FBI investigation focused on a former USAMRIID employee. Press Officer Vander Linden has no comment on that. In the early 90s, a USAMRIID inventory could not account for some stocks of anthrax and other specimens. Vander Linden insists the material was inert and was later accounted for. She says the only exposures have been to workers, usually when a needle or animal bite goes through a glove. When that happens, the worker goes here, to a medical room with the same containment technology and thick doors as a Level 4 lab. It's called "the slammer."


VANDER LINDEN: There have been 16 cases where we had a close enough call that someone had to be isolated here for observation purposes. And, fortunately, none of those people became ill as a result of that incident. The most recent was last year we had a person who had a needle stick with a weakened form of Ebola virus and she spent 21 days in here.


YOUNG: It's an ominous reminder of the risk workers face. And, Vander Linden says what drives that work is a need to be prepared for another threat almost too terrible to contemplate--such germs being used as weapons.

VANDER LINDEN: We have a dedicated work force. They're highly trained. They want to do things safely. So, I think, it's research that we can't do without.

YOUNG: That research will expand here soon as USAMRIID joins with the Department of Homeland Security for a new biodefense center at Fort Detrick, scheduled to open in 2008. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Young in Frederick, Maryland.

[MUSIC: Stewart Copeland "Ay Manu Wata Hai" Exotic Sounds From Many Worlds (Milan) 1996]



NIAID Biodefense Research site

Alternatives for Community & Environment


Department of Homeland Security fact sheet on the biodefense program

Biodefense References

Info on New Facility at Fort Detrick


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