OP-ED: How Safe is Watertown from a Bio Lab Emergency? Part 2

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By Linda Scott
Watertown Resident

Yesterday, I explored the process for responding to such an emergency. Today I am looking at the process for permitting bio lab companies coming into our city and the follow-up once the bio labs are in Watertown.

Bio lab safety has been on my mind. I admit it. I by nature am a worrier, which sometimes works out to be an advantage. Bio lab safety has been on my mind, since, as was mentioned in Part 1, here in Watertown we’re slated to have millions of square feet of labs in a four square mile, densely populated area.

Because I am concerned, I’ve reviewed Watertown Biosafety Committee Meetings and regulations, watched City Council meetings, requested and received a current list of bio lab companies in Watertown, and spoken with some very knowledgeable people in this area. Here are my takeaways from these efforts:

  1. To date our excellent (and volunteer ) BioSafety Committee has approved about 60 labs, all at Biosafety Level 2 Plus or below. Biosafety Level 2 involves research in diseases such as influenza, herpes simplex, and tetanus.
  2. Watertown’s current regulations allow for Biosafety Level 3 labs, which involves research in serious diseases such as tuberculosis, West Nile, and Anthrax. I refer you to the BioSafety Chart in Part 1.
  3. Watertown’s current biosafety regulations make companies coming to Watertown sign a release that they will allow annual inspections of their facilities by the Health Department. The Watertown regulations do not require inspections for these labs, however. The first labs (Bio Safety Level 1 and 2 facilities) were approved in 2020. To date, no inspection has been done. Note: These inspections differ from the fire department’s inspections. They would focus on safe biological practices and insuring that the work is as stated on permits, while the fire department focuses on physical plant and materials.
  4. In order for Watertown to effectively and accurately do inspections, you need highly paid, qualified inspectors (like for restaurants, only with more science degrees), and we have hired none. As the discussion went at the 11/9/22 City Council Meeting where the Biosafety Committee gave their presentation: Councillor Gardner: “There are no inspections. Does this work on the honor system? How do we know that they’re doing what they say they’re doing?” Brad Parsons (Biosafety Committee Chair): “We don’t.”
  5. As well as local inspections, Biosafety Level 3 labs require independent inspections by a “third party agent.” Very specialized personnel are needed to conduct these inspections. Currently we have zero of these inspectors at the Watertown Health Department, not even for Level 2 labs.
  6. In addition, these labs are all dealing with a lot of chemicals. Chemical hygiene is essential for human health as well as for fire safety. I am encouraged that Watertown has recently created a new Lab Safety Captain position to oversee inspections for bio lab chemical safety. Please see Part 1 for more details.

Tomorrow, Part 3, An interview with Larry Ramdin, Watertown’s Director of Public Health and an invitation to view the Watertown BioSafety Committee’s February 2, 2023 meeting.

2 thoughts on “OP-ED: How Safe is Watertown from a Bio Lab Emergency? Part 2

  1. I’m not sure, but don’t we have more than one in the city, and perhaps more? Those that have been approved must have convinced authorities that the people have nothing to worry about, correct?

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