Apparently, as far as the general media is concerned, anyone with a big mouth and a web site can qualify as an instant expert on biolaboratory safety. At least that appears to be the case in Boston, Massachusetts, where a new BSL-4 biological research facility now under construction faces vehement opposition from a loose collection of regional activist groups regularly quoted as representing the safety concerns of the local neighborhood citizenry. Even cursory research, however, will clearly illustrate that who, and what, these groups actually represent is highly questionable.
You see, according to these groups, it seems that the Federal Government (i.e., “the Bush administration”) is conspiring with Boston University to promote biological warfare. They are doing this, the activists claim, by building a biological weapons manufacturing facility in the heart of the city of Boston. Other expressed concerns center around the fact that this location will put predominantly black and hispanic people at risk, not take into consideration the high percentage of AIDS cases in the community, or address the associated growth in new white-collar jobs leading to the “gentrification” of the neighborhood.
That’s right; even though these activist groups repeatedly and publicly refer to the BU facility as a bioweapons lab, they are still treated as credible and responsible by the media, as well as by many university and government officials. The truth that BU’s BSL-4 biolab is in fact part of the Congressionally approved and funded “Project BioShield” program, established in 2004 to protect all Americans from possible attack from deadly biological agents by developing and making available effective drugs and vaccines, is often given secondary or even tertiary mention.
Now, the highly touted, “independent” National Research Council (NRC) committee of experts has weighed in on the matter. Yet this committee may be more independent of common sense than anything else given its choice to lecture the National Institutes of Health (NIH) draft environmental impact study for its insensitivity to “environmental justice issues and how the biocontainment facility could affect an inner-city population in particular.”
Look, I certainly agree that the residents of any neighboring community and the public at large have every right and responsibility to be concerned about the potential risks posed to them by a BSL-4 facility. And they have the right to have these risks clearly identified and explained to them, as well as how these risks will be dealt with through advanced technology barrier systems, rigid procedures and protocols, redundancies and fail-safe systems, control and monitoring systems, watchdog agencies and emergency response plans. From this information, they, and their elected representatives, will be able to make an informed decision on whether there is an acceptable level of risk. And, in my opinion, when it comes to Level 4 pathogens, no level of risk is acceptable, regardless of the location of the facility.
The problem is that when self-serving, propagandist activist groups become the center of debate, the real questions of risk and safety become secondary to other political and ideological concerns. And it is also my opinion that when it comes to providing our nation’s population with defense against biological attack, there is also no level of acceptable risk. Safety must always come first.