by Sujatha Byravan & Sheldon Krimsky

There was mixed emotion in the city after the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) awarded a $1.6 billion federal biodefense laboratory to Boston University Medical Center (BU). The project will include lab space designated for research on pathogens for which there is no known cure. While supporters applaud the potential for new jobs and
vaccines, community groups have opposed the project.

Among their chief complaints is BU's aversion to transparency and accountability. Unlike other applicants for the lab, Boston University did not provide outlines of proposed research to community members. They circumvented the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) by not completing an environmental impact review. The lab site was chosen without consulting surrounding communities. Further-more, conditions stipulated by NIAID — and only reluctantly acknowledged by the university — make it possible that BU will not control the content of research conducted at the lab. Boston University's unwillingness to share details about a facility that will handle some of the most dangerous pathogens known to science, and their reluctance to openly engage the public, have created a climate of suspicion and distrust. Boston can benefit from the experience of its neighbor, Cambridge, on fostering democratic engagement in the face of controversial scientific research. In 1976, when the City of Cambridge faced public concern about new high-security research facilities at Harvard and MIT, a citizens committee was appointed by the city manager to study the matter and make recommendations. The Cambridge Experimentation Review Board (CERB), composed mainly of laypersons from the city, organized hearings to debate the issues. City officials provided opportunities to discuss laboratory safety and scientific accountability. The outcome of those public deliberations included the creation of a biosafety committee and a prohibition against BL4 research, which was deemed too risky for a densely populated community.

A second Cambridge controversy over high-security research in the mid-1980s involved a new laboratory built by Arthur D. Little (ADL) to undertake federally-sponsored work on toxic chemical warfare agents. Once again the city set up a citizen’s advisory committee, which unanimously recommended that the research be prohibited — a decision upheld by the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

Four steps must be taken to allow Bostonians a similar opportunity to learn about the proposed high containment lab through public debate. First, residents must have access to the federal proposal describing the facility, the types of research to be undertaken in it, and whether such research falls under new Homeland Security secrecy guidelines. Second, the city should set up a citizens’ committee to review potential risks, alleged economic benefits, liability for accidents, and appropriate safety oversight of such a facility. Third, a risk and impact assessment should be conducted under MEPA by people who do not have a vested interest in the laboratory. Currently, information about accidents in several other biodefense
laboratories has not been made public.

We are aware, for example, that in 2002 there was a three-hour power failure (including backup generators) in the Plum Island BL3 laboratory. The media reported that windows at the facility were sealed with duct tape. At Fort Detrick, one of the nation’s oldest BL4 facilities, workers have tested positive for exposure to anthrax; numerous biological agents, including Ebola and anthrax, went unaccounted for in the early 1990s; and a hazardous waste cleanup uncovered more than 100 vials from the laboratory, many with live bacteria and some with anthrax. Accidents have also occurred in transit. For instance, in 2003 a package containing West Nile virus exploded in a Federal Express facility in Columbus, Ohio. Over the years, there have been reports of infected workers in several Level 3 facilities. [For more examples of accidents at federal biodefense labs, see our list on pages 8—9.]

The community must have access to investigations of accidents in high containment laboratories similar to that planned for BU. Once citizens can make a fair assessment of the risks and benefits of such a facility, and decided whether its intended location is appropriate, then they can develop a risk management plan to ensure that the facility is under
civilian control with strong community oversight.

Sujatha Byravan is Executive Director of CRG. Sheldon Krimsky is a professor in the Department of Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning at Tufts University. A shortened version of this article appeared in the November 2003 South End News.

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