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
"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
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
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
"There have been 73 years combined [of operation] among the . …