Outraged residents pack bioterrorism lab public forum

October 17, 2008

30 p.m., the starting time for the biolab public forum

More than 300 people crammed into Hibernian Hall in Roxbury for a public hearing on Boston University's (BU) proposed bioterrorism lab on Tuesday. So many showed up that police closed doors to the public just minutes after the meeting began.

The bioterrorism lab, located in the South End/Roxbury area and funded in large part by federal tax dollars, will house experiments into biological agents including infectious diseases that can be used in biowarfare. Biolabs in the U.S. are classified into four levels according to the danger of pathogens researched. BU's will include a Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4), the highest grade, allowing scientists access to ebola and other deadly viral hemorrhagic fevers for which there are no treatments. As the first BSL-4 to be built in a densely populated urban area, residents are worried that human error could expose thousands to hazards such as deadly airborne viruses.

A BU rep tells the crowd to write comments on mail-in forms rather than attend the meeting

Though the hearing was supposed to be a public forum, it seems that many people never got a chance to voice their opinion. Those who wished to speak were required to sign up before the meeting began, with a limit of 35 slots that were filled in the first 20 minutes of sign-up time. Many who intended to speak out against the lab were not told that there was insufficient time for their statements. Additionally, police told the crowd waiting outside that the room had reached capacity, even though the auditorium actually sat 100 more. Later, 40 to 50 people still waiting at the doors were allowed to enter.

A panel of scientists began by outlining their "Principles for Community Engagement" before asking the audience what information should be given to the community. Residents expressed outrage that the community was never consulted prior to the lab's construction and that officials approved the lab without an adequate safety analysis.

One person pointed out that the "Principles for Community Engagement" leave all decision-making power to lab administrators and none with the community. This power imbalance leaves the public with no way to ensure the lab's transparency or accountability.

A crowd of 40 to 50 people are blocked from entering the building

"Dual use research" was a major focus of the night's discussion. This refers to research on contaminants that could provide cures to diseases and also create biological weapons. Few speakers were willing to accept the risk of lethal pathogens being released into our neighborhoods.

The frustration expressed by Tuesday night's audience comes after a long struggle for community rights in the bioterrorism lab debate. The best way to reduce risk to the neighborhood is to not open the lab at all, yet BU and federal officials seem determined to follow through with plans to open the lab without community consent. Find out more at www.stopthelab.org.

October 19, 2008 Update: See the recent Globe article on the hearing.