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Last Updated

02 Jul 2003

Source: Washington Post, July 2, 2003

Bethesda Residents Fear New NIH Lab Would Be Terror Target

By Avram Goldstein, Washington Post Staff Writer

A plan by the National Institutes of Health to build a $186 million bio-defense laboratory near a busy Bethesda intersection is provoking concern among some neighbors who worry that terrorists could attack the facility and release deadly microorganisms in the area.

Scientists want to use the labs near the corner of Rockville Pike and West Cedar Lane to study pathogens that cause anthrax, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), West Nile encephalitis, drug-resistant tuberculosis and other potentially lethal diseases that can be contracted through inhalation.

Local officials are powerless to block the project because NIH is an arm of the federal government and not subject to local zoning controls. Under an agreement with NIH, however, local planners are entitled to review the proposal and recommend changes before construction begins in November. Last night, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission held an informal public forum, and some neighbors said they fear the project poses a needless risk because terrorists might be tempted to assault the building with a truck bomb, small arms fire or rocket-propelled grenades. They also wondered about the effect of infected animals getting loose.

"The site is just too inviting,'' said Tom Robertson, of the Parkwood Residents Association, adding that anthrax contamination could result from an attack. "Terrorists might try to put NIH out of business.''

Commission planners are raising questions about whether the facility is necessary when similar labs exist around the region -- including high-security labs that NIH is building at Fort Detrick in Frederick County.

"We are looking at the wisdom of locating it in this highly populated area near a Metro station inside the [Capital] Beltway," Marilyn Clemens, a commission planner reviewing the project, said in an interview. "We question this location when the exact same kind of research is going on in Frederick."

Jack Costello, who represents the nearby Bethesda Parkview Citizens Association, said NIH leaders are overconfident about safety.

"They don't seem to understand that the world has changed," he said in an interview. "What might have been an acceptable condition before 9/11 becomes now rather tenuous when it's not the employees of NIH who represent the major threat -- but the people outside. Why would you even consider putting such a threat in a highly populated area right on a major artery when there are other options?"

NIH leaders say they have the funding in hand and that the facilities are essential to expanding the government's capacity to protect the public against bio-terrorism.

NIH plans to construct Building 33, a 160,000-square-foot structure, in the northeast corner of the sprawling campus, about 400 feet from Rockville Pike. The building would house 25 lead scientists and 240 workers in labs rated at bio-safety level 3 (BSL-3) -- a category requiring trained workers wearing personal protective gear to use special physical containment devices to handle pathogens.

BSL-3 labs are equipped with double-door access, negative pressure ventilation systems to keep organisms inside, and special seals on walls, windows and doors.

The project will include an adjacent, six-story parking garage for 1,250 cars to replace the surface parking lost to Building 33.

Some neighbors are concerned that NIH's open door to thousands of foreign scientists is an invitation to trouble. The campus receives thousands of international scientists and visitors every year.

Other BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs have existed on the NIH campus for years without problems, said Tom Kindt, director of the intramural research division at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. BSL-4 labs are those that handle pathogens for which there are no known treatments, such as Ebola, and they have the highest level of precautions.

Security has been tightened considerably since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and, if necessary, he said, Building 33 will use entry systems that rely on a retina scan or a thumbprint. The campus soon will be ringed with a wrought-iron fence, he said.

Kindt, who did not attend the meeting last night, suggested that neighbors are motivated in part by concern that property values will be affected by their proximity to a bio-defense facility.

"They worry that the perception will be that others will say they don't want to buy there," he said, adding that bio-terrorism concerns and emerging infections mean that the campus probably will always be studying the pathogens that are least understood and pose the greatest risks.

"I'd like to say this isn't a trend, but my instinct tells me that emerging diseases are a fact of life," Kindt said. "We're going to have to learn to deal with them. The best defense is good diagnostics, drugs and vaccines."