OP-ED: How Safe is Watertown From a Bio Lab Emergency? Part 1

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By Linda Scott
Watertown Resident

In both numerous news articles about Watertown becoming a biotech hub and from our own personal observations here in Watertown, the vast and rapid proliferation of biotech buildings is looming large. It has become a grave concern for me and for many in this community.

And in Waltham, a neighboring city, it was recently reported in the Globe that there was a chemical spill at the Waltham Azenta Life Sciences Lab, involving a liter to a gallon of acid-based, flammable solvent, and requiring the Waltham Fire Department and the Massachusetts State Hazmat team to be called in for assistance.

Because of the massive proliferation of bio lab space in Watertown and a recent bio lab chemical spill just next door in Waltham, I decided that it was worth taking a closer look at Watertown’s biosafety preparedness status.

To do so, I reviewed the Watertown Biosafety Committee meetings and regulations and City Council meetings. I emailed the head of the Health Department, Larry Ramdin, for a complete list of bio lab companies currently in Watertown, and I have spoken with experts in the field.
I also requested and reviewed the Waltham Fire Department report for the Nov. 14, 2022 bio lab chemical spill. Then I turned to the Watertown Fire Department for information about our first responder preparedness.

Here’s what I found out.

We have been in the process of approving biotech companies for entry into Watertown since 2020. Chief Robert Quinn made a request for a captain position that would become our City’s Laboratory Safety Officer/Assistant Emergency Management Director.

The rationale for the need of this new position is described in the City of Watertown’s Annual Budget 2022-2023 document. Here is what is written:

“Many laboratories utilize or generate radioactive, infectious, toxic, hazardous or noxious substances, chemicals, or conditions. These substances, chemicals or conditions have the latent and actual capacity to inflict grave harm upon people ill-equipped to manage their harmful conditions in the event of a public health or public safety emergency. The primary responders (for example, WFD and WPD) do not currently have information that may prove critical to their emergency response – they do not know where all the laboratories are located in the City of Watertown, and they do not know what is contained within these laboratories. By requiring registration and inspections of laboratories, we will ensure that the public safety and public health personnel have the information that they need in order to respond adequately, effectively, and safely to any emergencies to protect the welfare of the laboratory staff, the neighborhood, and the greater population.”

To gather more information, I then turned to our provisional Watertown Fire Chief, Ryan Nicholson, to answer my questions. Here’s what I learned.

What Happens When a Call Comes in from a Watertown Bio Lab?

I spoke with Provisional Chief of Department Ryan Nicholson who helped me to understand a little bit more about the Watertown Fire Department’s role in bio lab safety in our community. It’s quite complex, but briefly, this is what I understand to be the situation:


Watertown has created a new Lab Safety Captain position within the Fire Department who is working on the specific fire safety regulations and an inspection schedule. He will inspect the bio labs. Watertown Fire Department lab inspections will differ slightly from other fire prevention inspections to include flammable and combustible storage, hoods, waste, evacuation plans, and more.


Our Fire Department equipment is able to handle an emergency situation at a high-rise building, given that high-rises are built with special features such as pressurized stairwells, fire pumps, and other building features required in these buildings. It’s a common misconception that ladder length is a determining factor in handling an emergency in a tall building.

I asked if there is a piece of equipment that Watertown should purchase for the WFD. He said that our equipment situation is fine right now. An example of a potential piece of fire department equipment that might need to be purchased in the future is a meter for specific particles in the air. In other words, as labs enter Watertown spaces, specific safety equipment will have to be determined on a case by case basis (based upon what materials they handle, etc.) so that residents, workers, and fire department personnel are safe.

In a Bio Lab Emergency Scenario

I asked what happens if a call comes in from a lab? His response was that in the case of a bio lab emergency, the WFD personnel who are responding to the call would be provided with material safety data sheets for fire staff to quickly review that will provide information on what materials are being stored or used on site. All of this information and more will be available on iPads using a software we’re implementing to aid in our responses.

Also, there should be a bio lab company contact person on call 24/7 to the WFD for specific information that may be needed. If the situation is deemed above the level of WFD training, a call will go in to the specialized Massachusetts Hazardous Material Response Team to get a tech on site. A state HazMat tech can usually be on site in 30 minutes. That tech will determine if more of the team needs to be activated.

That will take longer.

Staffing and Training

Two engines, one ladder and one command vehicle respond to a call. Because each of our ladders are usually staffed with only two firefighters, a second ladder truck is added to make up for the missing manpower on the initial alarm assignment. More staff is dispatched as needed, and supplemental equipment and personnel from Boston, Cambridge or other surrounding communities in the metro area are called in if the situation our fire department faces necessitates more personnel.

I asked what are our current training needs? Provisional Chief Nicholson said that all of our firefighters are fully trained to an operations level, after which a State Haz-Mat Team tech needs to be called in.

These techs have undergone hundreds of hours of intensive training in areas such as appropriate decontamination practices for victims and responders. Provisional Chief Nicholson said that the WFD has one staff member trained in that capacity who is on the State Haz-Mat Team, and another Watertown firefighter is on a wait list to join the team.

Thank you, Provisional Chief of Department Nicholson, for taking the time to educate me and the public on the Watertown Fire Department’s role in bio lab safety in Watertown.

This is the end of Part 1. Finally, I’d like to commend the Watertown City Council and the WFD for working together to identify and address this growing safety need in Watertown.

Tomorrow, in Part 2, I will focus on what I have been able to learn about the biosafety/Health Department side of this issue, but before I go, please see the link for the newly written Fire Department Laboratory Registration Process. https://www.fire.watertown-ma.gov/227/Laboratory-Registration-Process

16 thoughts on “OP-ED: How Safe is Watertown From a Bio Lab Emergency? Part 1

  1. I fully appreciate the time and effort devoted to this subject. I had no idea of the potential problems associated with the Biolab proliferation in our town===now City. I live on Riverside Street, located about 200 – 300 yards across the Charles River from the Galen Street Biolab nearing complete construction, and about one mile from the old Watertown Arsenal Mall. I feel very uncomfortable with that 30 minute estimation of a state Haz-Mat representative to arrive on scene. There are hundreds of other residences that occupy space adjacent to some of these facilities.

    “I asked what happens if a call comes in from a lab? His response was that in the case of a bio lab emergency, the WFD personnel who are responding to the call would be provided with material safety data sheets for fire staff to quickly review that will provide information on what materials are being stored or used on site. All of this information and more will be available on iPads using a software we’re implementing to aid in our responses.”

    Shouldn’t the WFD responders already be thoroughly familiar with those material safety data sheets for materials being stored or used on ALL the sites PRIOR to an emergency?

    As an after thought, Watertown is a RESIDENTIAL oriented city; why wasn’t the then Town of Watertown, its residents and shopkeepers, appraised of the potential dangers involved with the proliferation of these Bio-Labs? I know meetings were probably held, but how thoroughly was the information disseminated throughout the then town, now City?

  2. This Op-Ed is nothing but nameless, faceless fear of the unknown. I’ve worked in biotech lab buildings for years, and I have zero fear of harm from being inside them. And I strongly (strongly!) resent the implication that people who work in biotech companies are doing anything irresponsible that could harm the community.

    Note that, just because you show Figure 1 in the article, it does not mean that any labs are working with these materials.

    Regarding a “chemical spill” in Waltham – many industries use “acid-based flammable solvents” (not just biotech) and the risk of exposure therefore already exists from industrial operations right here in Watertown. If fact, you already have flammable solvents in your home.

    IMPORTANT: please don’t assume that a layperson without any science education will understand what “experts” are saying sufficiently to conclude anything at all om this topic. Education is always the answer to fear. So put in the time and effort to learn some science, so you can understand what the biotech labs are actually doing in their research. This will not happen in a few hours. Take a chemistry class and a biology class (as I have). And note that our bodies are made of “chemicals.”

  3. Both of these pieces contain important information about any potential biohazard from the labs in our city. Every Watertown citizen should be made aware of the precautions and the emergency responses to a potential incident. I applaud the efforts of Linda Scott and Wilfred Clifford’s input.

  4. Thank you, Linda, for your thorough research into this critical area of development in Watertown. As I and many others have expressed in the past, there seem to be too many of these life science/biolabs in Watertown. It seems that almost every neighborhood is going to have one or more close to residential homes, especially the Sterritt Lumber site and the proposed lab at the Cannistraro Plumbing location. In both areas residential homes are directly across the street from these businesses on narrow streets.

    After the debacle that recently happened in East Palestine, OH and how those poor people were misled and put in danger, we are all much more aware of the disaster of dangerous chemicals spilling and the poor handling of this situation by our federal government and the railroad officials. We certainly don’t expect a catastrophe of this magnitude here, but one never knows.

    Our labs will probably be dealing with various studies of a variety of viruses and other diseases and possibly some dangerous chemicals. We need to be prepared for the proper responses for all of these situations and we are a small city with limited resources. I hope we are staffing the city with enough people to handle any potential problems and who will and how we will communicate with people living near these buildings if there are any incidents and what actions will need to be taken to compensate people for any damages.

    Getting back to the labs, can’t we attract any other businesses here other than labs? There have been so many articles written that state that Boston and Cambridge are perhaps getting oversaturated by them and there are fears that if a number of them fail, who is going to take over these buildings. Gov. Healey has a goal of extending these types of businesses further west of Boston. If that happens, will these businesses move away from here to less congested areas?

    With us depending on this type of business to the exclusion of many others in the last few years, are we putting too many eggs in one basket? Can’t our city leaders look to attract a diverse number of businesses that would employ local people who don’t have only bio science backgrounds and degrees? Do we need to change our zoning laws to amend what is acceptable in dense residential areas that abut other business zones? Before we approve any more labs, let’s look at the whole picture of what we want in Watertown.

    I hope people attend the March 9 city planning meeting to express their thoughts on the future of Watertown. This may be our only chance at making some serious changes or protecting what we currently have. Charlie B. of Watertown News keeps us so well informed of all these upcoming meetings. Please look for the details in his publication in the next week or two. Please also spread the word about Watertown News to others who may not be aware of this free publication that gives us so much vital information regarding the happenings in Watertown.

  5. If I read this right, there are 2 Watertown firefighters, 1 on the State Haz-Mat and another waiting to be put on the list, that’s somewhat reassuring if anything was to go wrong. Thanks Provo Chief Nicholson for that. Thanks Linda look forward to part 2,

  6. Hi Wilfred,

    Your questions are all excellent and thoughtful. My first reaction is to keep reading. You’ll become more familiar with this issue. It took me some time to realize that each of these buildings will not just house one company.

    I don’t know what the plans are for Galen Street yet, but the owner of that building can lease space out to many biotech companies within one building. So, potentially, the Galen Street space could have two person companies, 100 person companies, etc. all working in the same building on different issues (disease cures, a new cosmetic, etc.), and all working with different bio hazardous materials and different flammable chemicals. A veritable chemical Rubik’s Cube!

    To memorize all of that would be impossible. I’m comforted that we’re now getting fire safety inspections, which could stop a lot of problems before they start. We also have not one, but two knowledgeable haz mat people in the fire department. I have no idea what the average is in each city and town, but that sounds like a lot for a small fire department to me.

    Watertown is not done yet building bio lab spaces. The old Cannistraro site is targeted for a huge one. There’ll be another on Waltham Street as well as at the Target mall. There may be more that I am unaware of.

    Don’t feel bad that somehow you missed all of this information. The person who clued me into this issue and has been following it closely for years says that at meetings, when asked about the whole biotech picture, the companies and our City reps’ answers have been pretty vague.

    Charlie has been accurately reporting on the plans for each space. Looking at the whole picture is a far different process! That’s why I (inspired by a friend who wishes to remain unnamed) decided to try to piece together this picture. (By the way, we’re not even getting into the projected 8,000 people who potentially will be coming in to Watertown to work in these labs). Hopefully, it will give Watertown residents a comprehensive look at how biotech is impacting their city.

  7. Hi Dennis,

    Yes, the fire department is definitely doing their part to protect us! And who will be the first ones to have to face this “monster” if, God forbid, an accident occurs? No one is accusing lab workers of intentional sabotage or incompetence. We live in a world where accidents happen. Provisional Chief Nicholson and Watertown firefighters probably know that better than anyone, given the number of calls they get for them!

  8. Instead of just being afraid of a potential accident, you might want to investigate how many haz mat emergencies with potential to affect the public have occurred in Cambridge. Our neighboring city has hosted MANY biotech labs and manufacturing facilities over several decades. Zero emergencies affecting the public have come to my awareness.

    I don’t think there are “too many” biotechs in Watertown – what is the dividing line between “too many” vs. “just enough” ?

    For the person suggesting that Watertown somehow find other businesses to establish in Watertown – if there were other types of businesses expanding, it’s a free market and they would compete for the space. But the demand for new space is coming mostly from life sciences. Across the state, the U.S. and the world, significant investment capital is being directed into life sciences because the field is generating stunning improvements in treating cancer, autoimmune diseases, rare diseases and other health challenges. This is a first class industry for Watertown to attract!!

    And it attracts educated people to Watertown. I sense that’s part of the resistance – longtime residents seem to resent people like me who’ve worked VERY HARD OVER MANY YEARS to develop the skills to qualify for these jobs. We’re not “elite,” we just worked harder and sacrificed more to get where we are. Nothing fell in my lap, I can assure you!

    Yes, each of the biotech buildings will house multiple companies (I’m surprised that’s a surprise!). Most of the innovation in life sciences these days is coming from small biotechs which take the early development risk, usually funded by venture capital. Large pharma companies aren’t generating many new medicines from their own R&D efforts. They partner with small companies (or acquire them) somewhere along the drug development path. Most drugs sold today by large pharma companies were initially discovered and developed by small biotechs.

    For those worried about some of these buildings being empty – the financial risk is held by the developers, not the city. Even if there is a near term drop in demand for lab space as the biotech space is undergoing a shake-out, this will be temporary. There is still a lot of $$$ flowing into new biotech start-ups, even as some small biotechs shut down. The ecosystem is fluid.

    • Thanks for your comment. Perhaps some of the companies can hold open houses and invite to public to see what they are doing, and how the safety measures they have in place.

      Also, people interested in hearing from the biotech companies in town can attend the Watertown Business Coalition will be hosting a Life Science panel on April 25 at the Mosesian Center for the Arts. https://watertownbusinesscoalition.com/#!event/2023/4/25/wbc-life-science-panel-2023

      • Nice idea, but I suspect most small biotechs would consider it a significant risk to bring the public into their labs. Their enterprise value is based on intellectual property and trade secrets. Also, employees must be trained before they can even enter those labs; it’s not practical to train people just for a tour. I’m wondering if there are other types of industry in Watertown that can cause harm to the public, and has anyone suggested that the public should tour their facilities? For example, should we ask Grainger on Arsenal St. how many dangerous substances they have on site and what are their safety procedures? I live near there….

    • Watertown has had more than its share of industries throughout its long history and some of it has not been benign. We did have some very significant research labs and facilities in Watertown at the Arsenal site that conducted materials and weapons research for many years. The site also contained an active nuclear reactor and conducted molecular and atomic research during the 1960’s. In 1987, the US Army discovered contamination at the site during inspection and as a result, 48 acres were declared a Super Fund clean-up site by the EPA and added to the National Priorities List in 1994. The reactor was demolished, and the site cleaning spanned from 1996-2005. To this day, this land has limited use and remains under institutional controls. Many of us “longtime residents” who have lived their lives in proximity will always remember what did happen in Watertown and to always be situationally aware of what industry and research is in operation alongside our homes and what the potential health risks they may bring into the community.

      • I recognize and honor this history of Watertown and the Arsenal. However, it is a truism of life that the past is never a guide to the future. And you might be interested to learn that new buildings are now being constructed very near that SuperFund site at the Arsenal, and at at least one of them (I know for sure) will house biotech companies.

  9. Hi, Linda:

    Thank you very much for this series.

    I’d appreciate clarification of Watertown’s Fire Department-based current provisions for municipal oversight of biotech facilities safety practices.

    Part I in your series states “Chief Robert Quinn made a request for a captain position that would become our City’s Laboratory Safety Officer/Assistant Emergency Management Director.” Part I later states “Watertown has created a new Lab Safety Captain position within the Fire Department who is working on the specific fire safety regulations and an inspection schedule. He will inspect the bio labs.”

    What’s the relationship between these two positions?

    Thanks again!

    • Hi Libby,

      They are the same, as I understand it. There was no “job” created, but a position was created to be filled within the current ranks of the fire department personnel. My understanding is that no actual salaried person was added to the ranks of the fire department. I hope that that answers your question.

      Thanks for your question.

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