Boston debates dangers of scientific research in era of WMD
City officials and a major university want to build a controversial lab in a densely populated neighborhood.
It took several months before residents of Boston's South End and Roxbury neighborhoods became suspicious of plans to build a major scientific lab along their border.Skip to next paragraph
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But after these neighbors learned the lab would be used to study the most dangerous viruses in the world - anthrax, Ebola, and plague among them - their suspicion quickly turned into anger.
Hundreds of people, many of them minorities and from low-income households, have since protested the building project, which was awarded to Boston University Medical Center last fall by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
So, too, have 150 local physicians and scientists, many of whom argue that even the slightest possibility of a leak into the surrounding neighborhood undermines the project.
But the lab has powerful supporters. Mayor Thomas Menino and Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy maintain that security is state of the art, and that a leak is virtually inconceivable.
As in hundreds of other labs in the area, the research can best be accomplished in Boston, they argue, because the city's biotech industry offers a ready pool of employees and expertise.
The long-term practice of basing research at a hub of science is clashing with residents' fears that the substances could be released into the community because of human or technological error, and that some work could be used to produce biological weapons.
The controversy here has become a flashpoint in the debate over the boundaries of scientific research in the era of weapons of mass destruction.
"It's part of the post-9/11 world that we are much more aware of the kind of research going on around us and the security risks involved," says Jeffrey Kahn, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota.
After the anthrax attacks of 2001, Congress gave the NIH millions to expand research of potential bioterrorist weapons. The labs - designated as "Level 4" - to be built in Boston and Galveston, Tex., will be used to study the world's most dangerous pathogens.
There already are two major Biosafety Level 4 labs in the US, located at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and Ft. Detrick, a Defense Department facility in Maryland. Galveston and San Antonio, Tex.; Bethesda, Md.; and Georgia State University in Atlanta are home to smaller Level 4 labs. The government plans to build two additional facilities in Hamilton, Mont., and another at Ft. Detrick.
The site in Boston is singular, however, because of the high density of the neighborhood.
Each square mile here is home to an average of more than 16,700 people, compared to just 3,400 in Atlanta and 2,600 in San Antonio, according to Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE), a neighborhood advocacy group.
The proposed location for the lab is set in a research park near a major expressway. But it is also not far from a residential neighborhood, which includes a K-8 school, an after-school program run by Catholic Charities, and a shelter for battered and homeless women.
While some people trust BU to build a secure facility, many are apprehensive. "Even if they take every precaution, I would still say that accidents happen," says Mike Pietrello, who works nearby at the Boston Water Commission.
Boston University officials respond to such doubts with categorical assurances. They often compare the lab's design to a submarine inside a vault.
Precautions include maintaining the main lab at negative pressure - if the air-locked door were to open, clean air would rush in rather than contaminated air rushing out. All air ducts have filters designed to catch pathogens 85 times smaller than the smallest one known.