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.

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.

More labs looking at bioterror

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.

Security questioned

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.

"There have been 73 years combined [of operation] among the ... other labs without a release from one of these buildings due to a failure," says Richard Towle, BU executive vice president.

Still, recent accidental releases of SARS spores from two labs in China amplifies concern thatno facility is entirely secure, according to Dr. Richard Ebright, a chemistry professor at Rutgers University and director of the Waksman Institute of Microbiology in Piscataway, N.J. "The record in Asia with SARS provides strong basis for concern," he says.

Others argue that the lab places an added burden on a neighborhood of Boston that already shoulders a significant number of city services, such as hospitals and public housing.

Experts on environmental justice argue that the city should strive to distribute locally undesirable land uses (LULUs) throughout a city's neighborhoods. The same issue arose during the era of nuclear-reactor construction, when residents in more rural communities complained that the government was biased in deciding where to do research.

"[BU] did not take into consideration this area's historical, disproportionate burden," says Pat Hynes, a professor of environmental health at BU.

"The burden of fear and insecurity is significant."

Several visitors to the Woods-Mullin Shelter For Women, located a few blocks from the site, say they have been warned that their shelter could shut down once the lab is built.

Even if they are allowed to stay, the women say that it will add to an already difficult environment.

"We're already breathing fumes from the interstate, and put up with helicopters coming in and out," says Deborah Day, a regular visitor to Woods-Mullin.

Residents and activists have also voiced concern about whether the lab will perform research that somehow leads to the production of bioweapons by the US government.

In response, the NIH has emphasized that all of the work will be focused on ensuring the health of Americans. They add that nearly all of the research will be made available to the public.

Concern over secrecy

But the level of classified research in the facility is still unclear, say activists. The NIH, for one, says that it will reserve the right to conduct secret research in the event of a national emergency.

"We have no intention on a day-to-day basis to do classified research," says Rona Hirschberg, senior program officer at the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases.

"That said, if another biodefense emergency were to take place [like the anthrax attacks], those facilities would be very valuable."

BU's Dr. Klempner says "we have no intention of doing any classified research."

An ordinance prohibiting Level 4 research in Boston is before the City Council. Some local activists believe its passage could cause NIH to withdraw its funding from BU.

A boon to business

The loss, say advocates, would be a major blow to Boston politicians who enjoy the prospect of building Boston into the national center of biotech research.

"The impression I have is that it really relates to the monetary rewards and the prestige that would come out of this," says Kyle Loring, a lawyer for ACE.

But the loss of the contract would come as a disappointment to several private businesses that look forward to collaborating with the researchers at the new lab. Such professional relationships are a key reason they base their companies in Boston.

"When we were starting [our] company, fundamentally it was important to me to be in Boston," says Alexis Borisy, president of CombinatoRx, a biopharmaceutical company that is a tenant in BU's research park.

"It means that if you're looking for collaboration or new talent, there is an ease of finding people."

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