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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Federal health agency declares biolab no threat to South End

By Stephen Smith, Globe Staff

A federal health agency ruled this morning that a high-security research laboratory being built in Boston's bustling South End does not present a serious threat to the neighborhood's safety and that it would not have been safer if located in a less-congested area.

The decision from the National Institutes of Health removed another barrier to the 2008 opening of the Boston University lab, where scientists will be able to study the deadliest germs in the world, including Ebola, anthrax, and plague.

In September 2003, BU won a hard-fought competition to build one of two new Biosafety Level-4 labs that are cornerstones of the Bush administration's campaign to protect against acts of bioterrorism. The University of Texas at Galveston was the other recipient of an NIH grant to help underwrite construction of a Level-4 lab.

Community and conservation groups rallied -- staging protests, enlisting scientists, and suing in state and federal courts -- to block the Albany Street lab, which is costing $178 million to build. Opponents have charged that the lab places an undue burden on a neighborhood with a significant proportion of minority and low-income residents.

The NIH report released today is in response to a ruling in one of the lawsuits, which called for further assessment of the environmental consequences of the facility.

Researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo compared what would happen if germs migrated from the lab into its South End neighborhood with what might happen if the lab had instead been built on more secluded property owned by BU in Tyngsborough or Peterborough, N.H.

The report concludes that even if an accident happened in the lab "under realistic conditions, infectious diseases would not occur in the communities as a result." The study also concludes that "there was no difference in simulated disease transmission among the urban, suburban, or rural communities."

One of the diseases evaluated, Rift Valley fever, might actually present more of a threat in the less-developed areas, the report says. That mosquito-borne disease could spread more easily in remote locations where such virus-carriers as livestock are more common.

To see the report, go to:

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