The BU scary-virus lab, revisited

As we discussed some time ago, Boston University wants to build, and apparently will get to build, a "level 4" biolab devoted to studying the scariest of biological agents: anthrax, ebola, you name it.

Well, science must move forward.  So all’s well, as long as BU is capable of handling the stuff safely, and as long as the lab will be built in a location where an accident wouldn’t immediately threaten large numbers of people.

The problem, of course, is that BU is BU.  And therefore, BU plans to build the lab here (there’s a different view of it here), in the South End/Roxbury area, a very densely populated part of the city (see maps 1 and 2 here).  (Of course, many people who live in that area are poor (map 3), so no big whoop, right?  If someone were proposing a level 4 research facility for super-scary biological agents in, say, the Harvard biolabs outside of Harvard Square, do you think this ever would have happened?)

Also, BU doesn’t exactly have a stellar track record when it comes to the discovery of, and the timely reporting to proper authorities of, "incidents" in its research facilities.  Remember the hoopla over accidental tularemia infections at a BU lab a while back?  Ah, but of course something like that could never happen again….right?

Anyway, the latest news is that the "independent committee" that is supposed to oversee safety and research at the new lab has been accused of having conflicts of interest, in that several members of the committee may want to conduct research at the lab once it’s built.  Surprise, surprise.  I haven’t been able to find the "report" that these allegations are based on – will update if I locate it.

I haven’t heard anything suggesting that the activist groups that are still trying to stir up opposition are likely to have much success blocking needed approvals – the powers that be seem to be solidly behind this project.  But it still strikes me as a bad idea.

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6 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. You know, it's becom

    You know, it's become vogue to rail against the BU biolab, but I've seen few argments that really sway me.It's true, there is risk. But, has anybody bothered to quantify those risks against more common industrial types of accidents, ranging from LNG in Quincy to a massive accident in the tunnel? I don't know which scenarios are the riskiest or most dangerous, but the mere fact that its level 4 doesn't concern me in and of itself.As for the track record, I'm far more comfortable with BU's reported track record than one in which everything was claimed to be hunky dory. My suspicion is that there is no part of a Level 4 lab process that allows for a single point of failure. A long series of events must all go wrong for a serious problem to go wrong -- and therefore, that process does allow for incidents along that "reaction chain" to go wrong from time to time.It would be nice if we could just build this thing in Alaska, along with all of our nuclear (and coal & nat gas fired) power plants, mining operations, heavy industrial activities, etc. Trouble is, that would make Alaska a population center.The reality is that the ability and experience relevant to the biolab exists in Boston, and not in many other parts of the United States. As to where it should go within the Boston metro area, I don't have the answers. Putting it in the suburbs means that it'll take longer to get a large number of fire/emergency/hazmat vehicles to the building should any serious accident occur. Putting it near research hospitals seems to make sense, since I'm sure there's quite a large cross-over in research personel. Given that the entire area East of their location is zoned industrial (mostly MBTA rail yards), it seems like a reasonable mitigation to me.So, what's the real beef? Is this mere NIMBYism, and if it is, is it rational NIMBYism?Disclaimer: I am a Ph D student at BU, but am in no way related to bio or med, and am as clueless to the details as the rest of us.

  2. >From what I remembe

    From what I remember hearing, no other level 4 lab is in a highly populated area like this. I don't remember where I heard that though - probably from a UJP (United for Justice with Peace coalition) committee member. It seems like common sense not to locate it in a population center, frankly, and that's enough to sway me.But then, I know people who are with the coalition groups opposing the lab. There's also the ethical anti-war stance - level 4 labs are where bioweapons are researched, if I recall correctly.

  3. <i>I'm far more comf

    I'm far more comfortable with BU's reported track record than one in which everything was claimed to be hunky dory.My problem is that BU's track record is precisely what I don't want to see in a lab like this. In the tularemia incident (see my previous posts, linked above, for details), BU (1) failed to figure out that there was a problem when it should have been glaringly obvious; (2) once it did figure it out, failed to report it to public health authorities as the law required; and (3) never disclosed any of this to the public until the Globe somehow got a hold of it. Back in January I described this as a "nasty combination of stupidity and an appalling lack of concern for the public health," and I don't really see much reason to revise that assessment. And there's more. This site reports that BU's "aversion to transparency and accountability" has been a recurring problem in the process of getting this level 4 lab approved - see the site for details.The reality is that the ability and experience relevant to the biolab exists in Boston, and not in many other parts of the United States.I don't buy that. According to this site, there are 4 operational level 4 labs: Atlanta, GA; Frederick, MD; San Antonio, TX; and Galveston, TX. If they've got who they need in Frederick and Galveston, they can find them pretty much anywhere.Also, the fact is that mistakes do happen regardless of how many redundant levels of security precautions they have, and they will happen at BU's facility just like they have at the country's other level 4 facilities (see this report for a list). I don't think it's NIMBYism to suggest that a densely-populated, relatively poor, high minority-population part of the city near highways that are already subject to traffic nightmares might not be the best possible choice.Given that the entire area East of their location is zoned industrial (mostly MBTA rail yards), it seems like a reasonable mitigation to me.Let's hope the winds are blowing east on the day that the first accidental release occurs!

  4. <i>I don't buy that.

    I don't buy that. According to this site, there are 4 operational level 4 labs: Atlanta, GA; Frederick, MD; San Antonio, TX; and Galveston, TX. If they've got who they need in Frederick and Galveston, they can find them pretty much anywhere.San Antonio and Frederick are close -- about 40 miles away, and both about 40 miles away from Austin, TX -- the location of University of Texas. I don't know the history, but that doesn't seem to be a coincidence... in fact, it seems right in line with putting the facilities where the experts are. Atlanta GA is the home of the CDC (Center for Disease Control) -- again, where the experts live.So, is the quibble that (a) it doesn't belong in the Boston metro area, or that (b) it does, but just not in the location that BU wants it, or (c) that BU is the problem. I don't buy (a) at all -- the other cites are located near metro areas that are also locations with expertise, just like Boston metro. As for (b), I don't see why it shouldn't be there instead of any other part of Boston -- in fact, if you believe it belongs in the Boston metro, the chosen location -- given its proximity to highways, public transit, and research hospitals -- makes it seem to be an ideal location. As for (c), well, I have no idea if BU is the right school to manage the facility or not.

  5. I assume you mean th

    I assume you mean that San Antonio and Galveston (not Frederick) are within 40 miles of UT. And Frederick, MD, it turns out, is about 50 miles from either Baltimore or Washington DC. Well, that's kind of my point: did we really have to jam this thing into the middle of Boston, instead of locating it, say, 50 miles outside? My sense (and I could be wrong) is that most nuclear reactors are not located in major cities, and that strikes me as a good thing for reasons similar to those I've already given: accidents happen, and it's best to minimize potential damage. I'd think that similar considerations apply here.

  6. ^I meant Frederick,

    ^I meant Frederick, TX, which is wholly irrelevant. Sorry. :) * San Antonio is a city proper, and is located less than 40 miles from a major academic center (UT). * Galveston is a city proper, and is clearly within the sprawling metropolis region of Houston (about 30 miles away). * Frederick is 50 miles from DC and Baltimore, and hence somewhat near Johns Hopkins University, a very strong medical university. * Atlanta is, well, Atlanta, and near the CDC.So, my point is that there isn't strong precidence to put these facilities away from dense populations... clearly, the centers in Atlanta, San Antonio, and Galveston are in very dense areas. Frederick MD seems to be in the least dense area, but checking out http://nationalatlas.gov/ it is still seems to be in the most dense category in the country (I have little more info there -- sketchy at best).So, clearly there are centers like this in cities, and others very close to cities. You can argue that those were mistakes too, that's fine. I just want to make sure I understand which part of the BU plan is supposedly poor in judgement. In my mind, putting it in a city center isn't substantially worse. If it's a significant enough health risk to be worried about the "really bad bugs" escaping the building, then folks should be arguing to shut down the buildings in San Antonio, Atlanta, and Galveston, and possibly Frederick as well. I haven't heard anybody making those claims -- so I have no reason to believe that putting one in Boston is a bad idea.Given that (IMO) Boston is A-OK, I think the proposed location is just fine... and I'd point out that the area near Symphony (maybe a mile away) is actually up-and-coming, and I'd expect that the property values will continue to increase down Mass Ave from Symphony. I wouldn't be suprised if Mass Ave becomes gentrified all the way to South Bay, full of rich white folks who want to live in condos with beautiful facades near Symphony or the hospital. So, the argument that it shouldn't be in a "poor" neighborhood fails for me, since (i) I don't see why not, and (ii) I suspect that regardless of the BU BioLab, the immediate area's property values will increase far more quickly than the Boston average over the next 10 years.Ultimately, the only argument that I've heard that might be convincing is that BU simply shouldn't be running the lab. I've yet to see a geographic argument that makes sense to me, but I have heard reasonable rhetoric that BU simply can't run the lab properly... some good, fairly analyzed evidence to that matter would certainly be useful for me.

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Fri 19 Sep 9:47 AM