OP-ED: How Safe is Watertown from a Bio Lab Emergency? Part 3

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CSET, Georgetown University

By Linda Scott
Watertown Resident

In my interview with Mr. Larry Ramdin, Watertown’s Director of Public Health, I focused mainly on the nuts and bolts of permitting and keeping track of bio labs entering Watertown as a safety issue. After our telephone conversation, I followed up by sending this interview to Mr. Ramdin to review. I’d like to thank Mr. Ramdin for his input.

At my request, Mr. Ramdin sent me the most recent list of bio labs in Watertown. Although the list contained 63 separate entries, at least 14 had the same company name as another, which Mr. Ramdin explained in some cases indicated two divisions of the same company. So, depending upon how you count these, Watertown has between 56 and 63 bio labs. Since the list that he sent was labeled ”Biotech 2023,” I asked how often the list of Watertown bio labs is updated. He indicated to me that this list was updated monthly.

As of the Jan. 5th Watertown Biosafety Committee meeting, about five labs were delinquent in sending in their information for re-permitting by the City. Committee members were (helpfully) going into their own personal Linked In accounts to try to find current CEO’s, since the current information was not available to them.

I asked Mr. Ramdin about this, and his response: We don’t get involved if managers come and go. What is important to us is if the chair of the company’s biosafety committee is changing. Then the lab has to come back to our Watertown Biosafety Committee for a new permit with the new name. Also, bio labs have to come back if they plan to use a new material or expand their use of a material.

They cannot do this unless they do an internal biosafety study and then bring it to the Watertown BioSafety Committee for approval. After the company internal review, if the risk level doesn’t change and our Biosafety Committee agrees, then new permits are issued. Mr. Ramdin used as an example a company that was working with E. coli and wanted to switch to Listeria.

I noticed at the Nov. 9th City Council meeting, where the BioSafety Committee presented, it was confirmed that there have been no on-site Board of Health inspections of bio labs. Asked if, since that meeting in November, had the Health Department done any on-site inspections? Mr. Ramdin responded, “No.” He mentioned that the fire department had started theirs. He also said that plans for training inspectors to do bio lab on-site inspections are expected within a couple of months.

I was interested in what specific qualifications these inspectors would need for the job. Will they require a life sciences degree? He replied, “Not necessarily. The plan is to go into labs to make sure that they are doing what they say they’re doing.”

I mentioned that recently I’d seen a bio lab maintenance facility truck driving through Coolidge Square. A question that came to my mind is how much bio waste moves through Watertown in a year? Mr. Ramdin replied that that area is regulated by a different authority (EPA and USDOT). Even moving material to a new place in a location is within a complex process which involves external hazmat transporters and a permitted plan. Even small containers are not exempt from special handling. He said that he had no idea of the amount of bio hazardous material that was transported through Watertown each year.

I expressed a concern that many in the community have about having BioLab Safety 3 labs in Watertown. Mr. Ramdin replied that he leaves bio lab safety level changes and regulations up to the Board of Health and the BioSafety Committee. He said that he’s been told that even level 2 organisms sometimes require level 3 protocols, but he isn’t an expert in this area. He leaves this to the Life Sciences people.

Thank you, Mr. Ramdin for your time and thoughts.

Must See Viewing:

Watertown BioSafety Committee Meeting on Feb. 2, 2023 (click here to view). This meeting summarizes it all … a look at how companies are permitted; the on-going and serious problem of getting labs to comply with biosafety regulations; policy and regulation decisions. See it in action.

Interviews with in-coming companies: 0:0:00 to 0:49:56
Regulations and policies and company compliance: 0:49:56 – end

Tomorrow, Part 4 Conclusions and final thoughts

9 thoughts on “OP-ED: How Safe is Watertown from a Bio Lab Emergency? Part 3

  1. And if we don’t have enough of these biolabs already, there are five more companies applying for permits. Please see Charlie Breitrose’s meeting notes below in this edition of Watertown News regarding the March 2 Biosafety Committee Meeting at 7 p.m. to discuss these new applications. If you are concerned that we are becoming a city of only biolabs to the exclusion of other diverse businesses, you may want to participate in this March 2 meeting and/or contact our Councilors to express your feelings.

    • What is your definition of “enough of these biolabs”? Also – please remember that anyone is free to start a new business in Watertown, nothing is stopping “diverse businesses” from locating here. Both can coexist.

  2. Thank you Linda Scott for your detailed and informative research on the potential risk of a biohazard and how the community is equipped to deal with one. My takeaway is that Watertown has NOT placed enough emphasis on the protection of its community and is basically hoping that every one of these labs, large or small, is acting responsibility and following internal and external protocols for operations. Oversight appears to minimal at best.

    • Thanks, Fred.

      You’ve managed to express in one paragraph what it took me many to convey!

      This is a fixable situation. Let’s hope that it’s done sooner than later!!

  3. Hi Johnny,

    Yes, more than 60 and growing. I just heard that on the agenda for March’s BioSafety Committee meeting are five more companies knocking at our door. More that 3,000 square feet of bio lab space in total has been built or is being built thus far.

    I hope that you watched the February Watertown Biosafety Committee meeting. The link was provided yesterday in Part 3. You’ll see what an enormous job these resident scientists have and what a service they provide to our community. The BioSafety Committee does a great job of looking over the company paperwork and asking the right questions. That’s the company’s first hurdle to jump to enter Watertown.

    I now have some questions for you, Johnny:
    In an industry that our Watertown Regulations state: “The Watertown Board of Health is aware that the use of biohazards, including rDNA, other infectious agents and biologically active agents such as toxins, venoms, and allergens can pose health threats to Watertown residents.”

    Does it even make sense that they should be less scrutinized by our Health Department than our local grocery stores and restaurants? Is a $50 fine (see the aforementioned Biosafety meeting) a serious attempt get one of these company’s attention when they screw up…and yes, they screw up! Already one of these companies is in court, charged with alleged financial improprieties. Hopefully, the next court appointment won’t be for some sort of negligence that harms someone in our community.

    Why would these multi million dollar companies even take Watertown seriously? We’re entering year 3 and no one even thought that inspections might be needed???

    Or were we so glad to take their money that we didn’t want to rock the boat?

    When I first started this study, lab inspectors were just being mentioned as a possibility. I am glad that we are finally getting inspectors. but if the Watertown Health Department is not taking this 100% seriously and training inspectors who don’t have the proper scientific background to actually understand what they’re looking at, I find that concerning. Is this just to save money and cover the Health Department’s back? I don’t know. Just a question I have.

    Let me end with another aphorism, since this post is full of them…Trust but verify, my friend!

    • Do not mix “financial improprieties” with lab operations (I know the company you refer to), those are unrelated although you implied some kind of relationship. This sort of fuzzy thinking simply generates fear – not with proof, but inuendo.

  4. Hi Kathi,

    As you might have noticed, I disconnected that thought by my next sentence. The reference is to humans make mistakes, even “intelligent and educated” humans. And, if you also noticed, I referred to the financial impropriety as “alleged”, which means it has yet to be proven.

  5. Hi Joan,

    I do strongly encourage citizens to participate in these BioSafety meetings. It’s a way to see what kinds of companies are coming into our City. The BioSafety Committee is a group of scientists and our Lab Safety Captain who don’t have the power to make City policy on how many labs we have. They’re meeting to make sure that incoming companies meet a certain safety standard. Residents might have questions for these companies and the Committee, and those questions might even make our City safer!

    The nature of the community we are becoming is more the purview of our City Council. Many residents (long term and new) are very disappointed, to put it mildly, in our Council’s performance thus far in this matter. The tone deafness to the public outcry is simply staggering! As well as calling or writing the Council, contacting the Health Department is also an option, since they’re responsible for safeguarding the public when these companies enter Watertown. So far, as far as labs are concerned, they’ve been inadequate to that task, I believe.

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