OP-ED: How Safe is Watertown from a Bio Lab Emergency? Part 4: Conclusions

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By Linda Scott
Watertown Resident

A Thank You

First, if you have been following this series, you know that many people have dedicated their time to helping Watertown residents understand this issue. I thank Provisional Chief Nicholson, Director of Health Larry Ramdin, industry professionals, including Heather McManus, for context on the biotech industry, and the volunteer BioSafety Committee for literally showing us how it’s done.

I entered this process with some serious questions about how we were handling our new (and potentially dangerous) corporate neighbors. I have learned that the Fire Department, with the help of a new Lab Safety Fire Captain is “on it” and that the BioSafety Committee, with their tremendous knowledge in the Life Sciences field is tirelessly committed to making this new venture work and work safely for Watertown, despite persistent information sharing problems with the Health Department. (See BioSafety Meeting Feb. 2, 2023)

So, here we sit, an estimated 60 plus bio labs and growing. What can we do to mitigate the potential danger level? According to the experts I’ve spoken with, there are several approaches that can be taken in our current situation:

Approach 1: Enact a moratorium on Level 3 labs until we have hired qualified personnel (with life sciences degrees) and have amended our biosafety regulations to mandate regular inspections. These personnel have to be Watertown employees, not volunteers. Volunteers cannot enact statutory penalties on companies who do not adhere to Watertown’s safety regulations. (See BioSafety Meeting Feb. 2, 2023)

Approach 2: Change the regulations so that no permit for Level 3 labs can be issued until there’s a
robust public forum that approves issuance of that permit as well as hiring qualified inspectors making inspections mandatory, and upgrading any fire equipment, if necessary.

Approach 3: Ban Level 3 Labs outright. This could be done in several ways. Brookline does it through zoning. (see Table of Uses Article 4, page 15 https://www.brooklinema.gov/DocumentCenter/View/18858/ZoningBylaw_3142019). The Board of Health can simply amend the safety regulations to exclude Level 3 labs, and, again, while they’re at it, make annual inspections for Level 2 and lower labs in Watertown more than a suggestion. Mandate them! We would still need to hire qualified people to do these inspections.

Personally, I believe that hiring highly qualified Board of Health inspectional personnel, mandating inspections, and enacting any fire department upgrades as needed (personnel and equipment) are important. Why? Because when it comes to public safety in Watertown for residents and for lab workers, there is no acceptable shortcut.

My Final Thoughts

The Watertown “Biotechnology and the Use of Recombinant DNA Molecule Technology” 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.”

They also state:

“The applicant [bio lab] shall provide proof of Liability Insurance in an amount deemed sufficient by the Board of Health and naming the Town of Watertown as an additional insured, and shall agree to release, indemnify, defend and hold the Town of Watertown and its agents harmless as to any claims, assessments, damages or causes of action arising out of or related to the Work.”
The (volunteer) BioSafety Committee does what it can to protect us, reviewing bio lab applications, asking questions, renewing permits each year. But as was stated at the City Council Meeting on 11/9/22, City Councillor: “How do we know that they’re (the bio labs) doing what they say they’re doing?” Chair of BioSafety Committee Answer: “We don’t.”

Hopefully, that is about to change, given Mr. Ramdin’s news that training for inspectors is imminent. I am less confident, however that these inspectors will have the appropriate science background to do this work thoroughly. I emailed Mr. Ramdin twice with questions on this topic, but was never answered. Mr. Ramdin’s stated purpose for the inspectors was that they would inspect labs to make sure that the labs were doing what they said they were doing. But without a life sciences background, how will they be able to inspect for safe biological practices?

Citizens of Watertown, in these regulations, the companies are protected and the City is protected. Where in the regulations are our protections? Mandated inspections? Limiting bio materials to ones that in an accident or emergency will cause the least potential harm to our community?

To me, our Watertown Fire Department and our Watertown BioSafety Committee are the heroes of this story, but they’re out on rafts alone in a biotech tsunami.  

If it were my decision alone to make, I’d vote in favor of Approach 3, banning Level 3 labs from Watertown. I’d ask the Board of Health to simply amend the biotechnology regulations to limit bio labs to biosafety level 2, mandate inspections, and make sure highly qualified people are hired to do those inspections.

Given all of this information, what questions does this raise for you? Please share them here on
watertownmanews.com with us.

And, please call or write your council people and the Board of Health to express your views in this matter.

Thank you for your patience.

13 thoughts on “OP-ED: How Safe is Watertown from a Bio Lab Emergency? Part 4: Conclusions

  1. Thank you Linda for your work on tracking and sharing this information.
    It sounds like it’s no small task. I look forward to the response of the BioSafety Committee to you points of concern.
    I’m sure I fully agree that inspectors have to be highly educated to be inspectors. Having people who are qualified on inspections make sense but I would think that the person who design the inspections is / are the one who must have to have knowledge and experience in the life sciences. The people who do the inspection can likely be any intelligent interested person who can follow the inspectional procedures created.

    • Thanks, David.

      I hope that your supposition is correct. It should make it easier finding qualified inspectors under those circumstances. I was given the name of someone to call who is an expert in just this part of the process (inspections). He may be able to enlighten me on this. If I find out any more, I’ll be sure to share it, and I promise that it won’t take 4 parts!!

  2. Great four part analysis. Thank you for your effort.

    As a former Director of Administration of an academic basic science department (Genetics) I agree that your Approach #3 is the best choice,
    but I’d hope for excellent gatekeepers.

    • Yes, Robert, I agree that limiting the array of hazardous materials in Watertown bio labs is no substitute for effective personnel! They go hand in hand. Good point! Thanks.

  3. Linda, thank you for your extensive research into the Bio Labs in Watertown. It seems that our local Watertown Fire Department and our Watertown BioSafety Committee are doing what they can to keep up with the numbers of labs that are here and, hopefully, put in place the needed safety inspections and regulations.

    With all the publicity of the Wall Street Journal article this past weekend regarding the COVID ORIGINS REPORT, many more concerns are raised regarding the safety of labs testing and experimenting with dangerous viruses in China. The Classified Reports exposed that the leak more than likely was released from the Wuhan lab, that it was not spread from bats to humans.

    Our own Energy Department and the FBI admitted that the lab leak theory is more than just a conspiracy theory. The Wall Street Journal released an investigative report that concluded that the virus was leaked from a lab and removed their own previous doubt on the topic. The lack of open dialogue only divides us. We need to be informed with the truth to best respond to any possible problems or incidents.

    We need to remember what happened in Wuhan so it never happens again. We need all government leaders, both locally and nationally, to not choose censorship over dialogue when we are dealing with important health matters. Look at what just happened in East Palestine, OH!

    Gain of function testing was being done in our country and then was sent to China to continue because we have laws against such testing. We need scrutiny in all areas of medicine to be sure we are not putting any of us at risk.

    Robert Kennedy once said, “We can master change not through force or fear, but only through the free work of an understanding mind, through an openness to new knowledge and fresh outlooks, which can only strengthen the most fragile and most powerful of human gifts: the gift of reason”.

    • All good points, Joan. We need to make sure as a community that we share what we discover, and not create information silos, which in the end, makes nobody safe!

  4. I have followed all four parts of the analysis and am very much impressed by Linda’s research and the efforts of our Fire Department and Police Department and others. My vote goes to Approach #3.

    • Yasmina,

      Thank you for joining me in this rather long road to discovery. I have hope that as a result, decisions will be made to make us all safer. And residents like you expressing your opinion can only help!

    • I agree with you, Dennis. Being ahead of the curve always works better for me. I can’t seem to express myself in less than four chapters, though. I’ll work on that. Hopefully, this will have a positive impact on the safety of our community.

  5. The author has investigated basic town ordinances and procedures and explained them in 4 parts. This is fine, and we should expect all businesses in Watertown to obey the law.

    The problem is that *facts* have been mixed throughout with misleading statements and innuendo designed to amplify the author’s fear of biotech labs and suggest these companies are somehow bad for our community. They are not.

    Many of the Comments reveal that it worked. People are jumping to the worst possible scenarios, saying they’re concerned because of the recent train derailment in East Palestine, OH and the ongoing investigation into the origins of the Covid virus. The flaw in logic is that, just because one thing happened, it doesn’t mean that another unrelated thing is more likely to happen.

    What’s missing in these 4 parts is any intelligent assessment of the ACTUAL risk, in terms of *probability* of some safety event and the likely *impact* it could have on the community.

    Here are some other concerns with the series overall:

    — The author mentions (in a previous part) “alleged financial improprieties” by one Watertown biotech, clearly implying that if the company is doing something wrong in one area, they’re probably doing something wrong in another area. The author first mis-portrays what the alleged behavior is and, second, connects it to lab safety, which is entirely unrelated. This is an attempted smear…. i.e. using misleading statements to generate an overall impression of malfeasance without supporting the accusation with facts.

    — The author states above that “our Watertown Fire Department and our Watertown BioSafety Committee are the heroes of this story, but they’re out on rafts alone in a biotech tsunami.” This language implies some imminent risk of destruction (that’s what a tsunami does!) which is being addressed singlehandedly by brave, under-resourced Watertown entities. However, the author has no way of knowing whether these Watertown entities are mitigating the risk or not — paperwork does not equal safety!

    — The author spends a lot of time discussing Biosafety Level 3, although there are no labs currently operating at this level in Watertown. In fact, a VERY small proportion of small biotechs (if any) are working with hepatitis or West Nile virus or TB bacteria, and zero would be working with anthrax.

    As I suggested in another Comment, perhaps the author could investigate the experience of Cambridge, which has many biotech labs and commercial manufacturing facilities, to clarify *how often* they’ve experienced safety events which affected their community and *how severe* those events were (for example, were they small spills which were contained within a single room and never impacted the public?).

  6. Hi Kathi,

    Paragraph 1: Basic town regulations and policies are being violated by labs. An example, according to the Watertown BioSafety Committee, one Watertown lab has not held a biosafety meeting in over a year…a very big regulation violation.

    Paragraph 2: Nowhere in these articles have I said to ban bio labs entirely.

    Paragraph 3: These are all events (a worldwide pandemic and a train derailment that spread toxins all over a town) that actually happened and whose causes are being explored. As I mentioned in response, if the various silos of information are opened and shared, we are much more likely to be able to identify the true causes and effects of these accidents.

    Paragraph 4: No one cares about how low the probability of an accident was when their loved one is harmed.

    Paragraph 5: As I responded at the time, this was meant to remind us all that “intelligent and educated people” are not immune from making mistakes of all kinds.

    Paragraph 6: A tsunami is also a giant wave.

    Paragraph 7: I mentioned that currently there are no bio level 3 labs in Watertown. I stated that we could avoid an accident on a much higher level by limiting our labs to ones classified no higher than level 2. The only way of having a 100% probability of no bio level 3 lab disasters of any kind in Watertown is by having no bio level 3 labs in Watertown. If there weren’t an increased level of danger, scientists would not have developed a bio safety scale.

    Paragraph 8: Doesn’t Cambridge have inspections?

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