Boston Residents Face to Face with Bio-War

BOSTON, United States - The U.S. government and Boston University are facing protests and lawsuits for building a laboratory to research potential biological weapons in a neighborhood whose residents are mostly African-American and Latinos.Approved by the federal government in February 2006, the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory is better known locally as the BSL-4, for biosafety level 4, the highest risk, determined by the type of material the scientists are working with. Construction began in March and the lab is scheduled for completion in 2008.

"They sell us the idea of the laboratory in our neighborhood because it would provide jobs for the families. The work in reality is not for us, but for the high-level researchers that will move here," says social worker Carmen Nazario, of Puerto Rican origin, and a resident of Villa Victoria, a community of predominantly Latin American immigrants in Boston's South End.

Within about a one-kilometer radius of the site live some 50,000 people. Boston, in the north-eastern U.S. state of Massachusetts, is home to more than 600,000 people.

Nazario is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the federal government and Boston University, accused of violating national environmental law in failing to study the laboratory's possible risks and effects on the communities' health.

The original lawsuit was filed in May 2005. As a result, the court called for new environmental and health impact studies, which were to be presented last month for public review, but have been delayed.

The case will be taken up by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, of which Boston is the capital, to determine whether construction of the lab will continue or not.

According to Boston University (BU), which received 128 million dollars from the National Institutes of Health and is to pay its share of 50 million dollars to complete construction, it is imperative to begin medical research about pathogenic agents and the human immune response to them.

"The funding for the lab was based on the assessment that the U.S. needed more BSL-4 capacity to defend against the 'GWOT' (global war on terrorism)," George Annas, BU health and law professor and one of the voices of opposition from within the university, told a conference on May 5.

"I think this is incorrect, and the building of more labs devoted to 'bioterrorism' both overstates the need and creates at least as much, if not more, dangers" for the community, said Annas, author of "American Bioethics: Crossing Human Rights and Health Law Boundaries".

U.S. and international guidelines specify BSL-4 containment only for five sets of biological agents: hemorrhagic fever viruses, tick-borne encephalitis viruses, hendra viruses, hantaviruses, and cercopithecine herpesvirus, and only for a subset of activities, typically those involving production quantities or concentrates, according to Richard Ebright, director of the microbiology laboratory at Rutgers University.

"Outside the context of biowarfare or bioterrorism, most of these agents do not pose public health threats in the U.S.," he added in an interview.

According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the BSL-4 lab will be dedicated to developing vaccines, medications and diagnostic tests to protect the population.

BU spokeswoman Ellen Berlin said in an e-mail that the research to look for vaccines and cures for the emergence and re-emergence of infectious diseases is important for public health.

But such statements do nothing to reduce mistrust by community leaders like Nazario. "If the government is so worried about our health and wants to invest in it, it isn't necessary to build such a big and complex structure," she said.

Labs with biosafety levels 3 and 4 have the greatest degree of confinement. This requires special design characteristics, such as sealed windows and special ventilation systems to prevent transmission of biohazards by air.

There are already four BSL-4 laboratories in the United States, and another five are expected to begin operating by the end of the decade, including the one at BU, as part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's strategy to improve defenses against bioterrorism.

The budget includes 4.5 billion dollars for 2008. According to the non-governmental Council for Responsible Genetics, based in nearby Cambridge, from 2000 to 2005, the annual funds for this type of defense increased more than six-fold.

The interaction of health and national defense concerns a vast sector of the scientific community, and some local politicians who don't see a basic effort to find cures for serious infectious or environmental diseases.

"The problem with labs like this is they concentrate on agents that are extremely unlikely to afflict humans (for example, inhalational anthrax) and use scarce resources that could be applied to real threats from national and emerging infectious diseases," BU environmental health professor David Ozonoff said in an interview for this report.

Karen Slater, who works in the BU department of anatomy and neurobiology, where the relationship between problems involving the brain and arterial pressure are studied, said that "money that has been for basic research is now directed to the Homeland Security Department."

Furthermore, the proliferation of BSL-4 labs could have other repercussions for security.

"In research on next-generation (pathogenic) agents, we will be engaging in an arms race with ourselves," says microbiology chief Ebright.

Because no other country has the capacity to develop these agents, "we potentially will be arming our adversaries," warned the scientist.

The collaboration of health and defense "to obtain impossible cures" worries FAf(c)lix Arroyo, the only Latino on the Boston City Council, the first voice to represent the Hispanic communities, like the Villa Victoria neighborhood.

Arroyo was among the marchers on May 6 to protest the construction of the BSL-4 lab, as part of the Bio Justice 2007 conference, May 4-7. He proposed a city ordinance to prohibit construction of any BSL-4 labs in the Boston area, following the examples of nearby cities like Cambridge and Somerville.

"It's an act of environmental injustice to build that lab in the middle of such a densely populated area, with so much deserted territory in the United States," he said.

This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS and IFEJ -- the International Federation of Environmental Journalists.

Copyright (c) 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.