When it comes to biolabs, public is still in the dark

by jeeg 4. April 2013 21:51

One could conclude that the Government Accounting Office is concerned that the fox is guarding the henhouse after completing a report requested by U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and others who have been studying federal regulation of high-containment laboratories.

Federal officials have failed to develop national standards for design of the labs — which conduct research into dangerous biological agents — or their construction and operation, the report said.

Another recent audit by the U. S. Department of Agriculture also has shown that federal officials have failed to find “significant” security and safety breeches during biolab inspections due to lack of such standards.

The GAO had asked for national standards over three years ago. USDA officials called the audit findings “unduly alarming,” and Upton, a Michigan Republican, found them “very troubling,” with the need for further oversight.

It appears that no one knows the exact number of high-containment labs that exist today. The number of registered labs was put at 1,362 in 2008 and 1,495 in 2010. Those numbers for Biosafety Level-3 and Biosafety Level-4 laboratories are called incomplete, but the best available from “a most credible source.”

Yet the federal Office of Science and Technology Policy disagrees that the risk factor has increased, using the probability theory.

It claims that any risk increase should be for a single lab, and that adding all the labs together gives a distorted picture. Each lab operates independently and should be reviewed as such, the agency said. The office also claims that budget constraints could have affected the national capacity to address certain research priorities.

To this writer and many local residents, those excuses have been heard before. Twenty years ago, when the issue of groundwater pollution from Fort Detrick arose, we were told there was no money in its budget to fix the problem, and consequently it would take years to do a study.

And although there was never any doubt that Area B, given the history of what it contained, was at fault, Fort Detrick officials never admitted that it was impacting nearby neighborhoods.

They acted as if the U.S. Army post did not have to answer to the Frederick community. In fact, they insisted that the base did not have to accept orders related to the environment from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The post has a mission that comes first, and nothing will stand in its way, they suggested.

However, Congress told the Army that it is not the top dog, that it must follow EPA’s directives.

More recently, the local Containment Laboratory Community Advisory Committee has pushed for more transparency. The director of safety, security and biosecurity for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases indicated the public will get more information, but it has not ascertained what that will be. The advisory panel’s chairwoman, Beth Willis, hopes it will be internal and external audit reports, and the guidelines used in reportable incidents.

Yet the problem for local residents is they do not know what other sites nearby are being used for BSL-3 and BSL-4 biolabs. Nor will they know, unless Congress acts to require guidelines for construction and design.

A single agency under congressional guidance is needed to control duplication of effort, one that requires all involved to use the same safety standards and provides timely reports on incidents. There needs to be better transparency and less hiding behind needless regulations that blocks open communication and fails to keep the public informed.

It is believed there are already several such labs beyond Fort Detrick’s gates, operated by private entities. But when the containment lab committee tries to determine their location, they are told such information is not public.

So the neighborhoods of Frederick County where they exist are kept secret. Maybe that innocent-looking structure near your community may house one of man’s deadliest research sites.

Paul Gordon, Maryland Gazette

 

 

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4/27/2013 12:30:26 AM #

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