BU BioLab Triggers Community Concern

In 2003, Boston University became one of two universities to receive a grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) to construct a National Biocontainment Laboratory next to the BU Medical Center (BUMC) in the South End/Roxbury area. The $200 million biodefense lab, which sits on Albany Street adjacent to BUMC, measures 192,000 square feet and is 7 stories high.

Although construction started in 2006 and ended in 2008, the “BioLab,” as its come to be known, has not opened its facilities yet due to controversy regarding the BSL-4 lab.

According to the National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratory’s (NEIDL) website, there are four levels of increasing containment labeled Biosafety levels 1-4 (BSL-1 to BSL-4) within the facility. BSL-1 and BSL-2 labs are considered low-level research since the agents involved are not easily transmittable through the air, yet may cause disease. BSL-3 research involves the use of biological agents indigenous to the U.S. that have proven to be fatal but have treatments.

Biosafety Level-4 Laboratory | Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But this BSL-4 space, which makes up 16% of the facility, requires research performed on or with “dangerous/exotic agents” that have a high “individual risk” of aerosol-transmitted laboratory infections that are “frequently fatal,” and which have “no vaccines or treatment,” as reported by the Center for Disease Control website.

Groups such as the Roxbury Safety Net and the STOP the BU-Bio-Terror Lab Coalition have become the leading community voices opposing the facility, which they believe would set a bad precedent. BU students and alumni have also joined the coalition. Monica Spicher (CAS’ 11), a recent graduate, created a Facebook group protesting with the coalition. “In 2005, BU students started organizing a group against the Biolab and I heard that there was a big fight against it so I made this group in conjunction with other community groups,” Monica stated. The community’s grievances include moral concerns, health concerns and distrust of the overlooking organizations—namely, BU and NIAID.

Immediately after the BioLab’s inception, neighboring communities questioned the morality of BU’s actions. The university’s decision to build the lab in a residential neighborhood raised concerns. BUMC is surrounded by South End/Roxbury, a low-income neighborhood. The community argues that BU will jeopardize the health of people who are already unable to afford healthcare. The elderly and disabled, they say, are not taken into account; moreover, a large population and transit systems could be negatively affected. For this reason, the opposition strongly rejects the presence of the BSL-4 lab, the only one located in Massachusetts. Although the morality of the BSL-4 lab is one point of contention, but it is compounded by another–the community’s distrust of the biolab’s supervising organizations, BU and NIAID.

According to the NEIDL site, there are hundreds of BSL-2 labs and about 30 BSL-3 labs in operation around Massachusetts. Normally, low-level research facilities don’t raise much public concern; however, past incidents that were unpublicized by the NEIDL caused distrust of BU and NIAID.

Last year, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in Boston released a document outlining the milestones of the BU BioLab saga. In 2004, BU violated state regulations by failing to disclose that three lab workers were infected with Tularemia. This occurred after BU was granted approval to build the BioLab from the City of Boston and the State of Massachusetts. During a meeting last year between the community and the BioLab officials, a community member cited another incident that occurred in September 2010. A Northeastern University lab technician used a vial of cyanide she had taken out of the lab to commit suicide. These incidents were not the only issues to arouse suspicion from the community.

But the BioLab’s development has hit roadblocks and red tape without help from the protesters. The Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (MEOEEA) requires BU to prepare a Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) in accordance with the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA). These are integral for the permitting process. The FEIR’s approval was voided in 2006 on the grounds that BU did not account for “worst case scenarios” and whether or not location played into the magnitude of catastrophe that could occur. And the university’s failed risk assessment gave the community ammunition against the BioLab’s opening.

Is the BioLab cause for concern? | Illustration by Evan Caughey

This past August, BU requested a waiver to undergo lower level research (BSL-1 and BSL-2), which was received with immediate disdain. Members of the community opposed to the lab concluded that there should be no reason to surpass the risk assessment if the facility maintains efficient safety regulations. They hold their contention that the risk assessment should go on.

In an phone interview with Steven Burgay, Senior Vice President of External Relations at Boston University, he stated that there is a task force managing the process that they are going through to open the BU BioLab. The National Institute of Health (NIH)—the head organization of NIAID—created the Blue Ribbon Panel, made up of experts on infectious diseases and public health to manage the risk assessment process. Burgay reinforces NIAID’s statements that the BSL-4 lab maintains the strictest safety regulations when transporting and experimenting with these infectious agents. He says that BU completely supports the risk assessment for the BSL-4 lab, yet they want to begin work with lower-level research, as the facility has been empty since construction ended in 2008. Burgay articulates the validity of NIAID, and the opening of the BSL-1 and BSL-2 labs, which will be regulated by the Boston Public Health Commission.

For nine long years, legal battles and community opposition have postponed the opening of NEIDL. Monica Spicher and others have joined the campaign to get the Boston city council to join them. There have been several attempts at contacting Mayor Menino for an open discussion as well as several petitions sent to President Brown to which he has responded. The most recent risk assessment has been ongoing for three years, but BU is set on opening their facility as soon as possible. The opinions of BU and community opposition are set. In light of the current progress being made, there is a real possibility that the facility’s opening will become a reality. With all the difficulties that the BU BioLab has faced, the Boston community will make sure that BU and NIAID will hear about their concerns at each step of the way.

For more information, see:  http://www.bu.edu/neidl/about/

Camilo Pardo

Camilo Pardo (CAS ’13) hails from the land of crabcakes and Old Bay (Baltimore). Here at BU, he studies Environmental Policy and Public Health. When he is not in class, he’s playing his guitar, Paloma. If you want to discuss anything music or science, he is your go-to guy.

5 thoughts on “BU BioLab Triggers Community Concern

  • October 17, 2011 at 11:11 am

    There are a few errors in this article. BSL-3 is used to denote the type of biological agent used in the lab and has nothing to do with hazardous chemical agents. There are a lot more BSL-2 labs that are mentioned in this article.

  • October 17, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    How is this timely at all? BU made the announcement that it was thinking about opening the lab three months ago and most of your information is from 2005. Isn’t this a news website? I don’t see how this is news at all. You don’t even reference where you got the information about the lawsuit from. Shotty piece of “journalism” overall. If the Quad wants to be taken seriously as a campus new site you need to step up your game.

    • October 17, 2011 at 4:07 pm

      First of all, Stephanie, your comments come off as unnecessarily abrasive, as if you have some vendetta against BU Quad. While BU may have made an announcement on the lab a few months ago, that does not mean that the BU community is well aware of its existence. In news, a certain issue may be covered several times if it is an ongoing controversy. Likewise, the controversy over the BU BioLab is not over and updates need to be given. You call this a “shotty piece of journalism” but do you even understand what the intent of journalism is? It is to provide information to the public. Information from past years, the information that you claimed was mostly “from 2005”, was only given to provide context for the issue at hand. It is an appropriate and expected practice in journalism to give the historical background on an issue that is not in the press enough to be common knowledge. Do you think that if you had asked a 100 passing BU students, they would have known about the lab workers that were infected with Tularemia in 2004? Furthermore, the sources for legal information were cited. It was not as if the author said, “There were legal actions taken” without acknowledging that the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights released the document. Next time you want to take a shot at critiquing journalistic practices, maybe you should learn about what they entail first.

  • October 17, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    Hello Anne,
    I have fixed the necessary corrections to the article.

  • October 19, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    Nice cat fight. Obviously, Jennifer, YOU have an agenda as your first comments are personally directed and subjective. The rest of your comments seem to propose that if you don’t have a degree or intimate knowledge of “journalism,” whatever that is considered this week, then you’re not entitled to an opinion. The author admits to errors that were corrected, if Stephanie’s comments were perceived as prickly, then perhaps you should consider reading less defensively.


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