UMBC neighbors fearful of bid for biotech center

November 11, 1991|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Evening Sun Staff

On a clear fall afternoon, Kathy Valderas watches her 2-year-old son play in the front yard and wonders if the grass, air and water in their Arbutus neighborhood will still be safe in a year or two.

The nearby University of Maryland Baltimore County campus is the leading contender to house the state's $22 million biotechnology processing center.Residents worry that the center, and biotechnology developments likely to follow it, will expose them to harmful, genetically engineered microbes.

"If it was something as simple as a smokestack factory, we could see [the risks]," Valderas says. "But we are not going to be able to tell if some bacteria has been released until the damage has been done."

Industry backers say the fears are groundless and that most biotechnology is as harmless as brewing beer -- another activity that uses microbes. But residents aren't convinced and they're preparing for a fight.

It's a battle likely to be repeated as the state strives to become the Silicon Valley of biotechnology. Millions of tax dollars have been committed, and business leaders have declared a goal of creating a "Biotech Alley" within Maryland. Only two other states have more biotechnology firms now.

Success could mean thousands of new, high-paying jobs dedicated to some of the world's most futuristic pursuits, from developing environmentally sound pest control to curing cancer. And supporters say that biotechnology is safer than most other industries in the state, even steelmaking and chemical manufacturing.

But critics warn that biotechnology is a new frontier, full of unknowns and susceptible to human error. Novel organisms are produced, often by genetic engineering, with unpredictable results. Released into the environment, these life forms could upset delicate ecological balances -- or, worse, sicken or kill people. And regulations have not kept pace with discovery, the critics say.

"There's about as much risk as living next door to a yogurt factory," replies Alan Goldhammer, a biochemist and the technical director of the Industrial Biotechnology Association, a trade group.

Small releases are probably unavoidable, and dangerous organisms can be created, but the risks are far outweighed by the benefits, says Goldhammer, adding that the industry's safety record is nearly spotless.

He and other backers say that much of the criticism is based on ignorance, and that "killer tomatoes" and other fanciful beings are not creeping out of labs. Genetic engineering, these experts say, merely represents a new way of performing one of nature's oldest tricks: mixing and matching genes.

So far as is known, accidental releases of biotech organisms have produced no deaths, injuries or obvious degrading of the environment. But Valderas, president of the 500-member Maiden Choice Community Association, and many other residents are worried.

The Southwest Coalition, which includes Valderas' group and a dozen other community organizations in southwest Baltimore County, is amassing a legal defense fund to fight the center, says Charles Macgill, president of the coalition.

"We don't want to find out 10 years from now that something has happened that has affected the health of the community," he says.

Members of the coalition have met with lawmakers and even picketed the October groundbreaking of the Christopher Columbus Center of Marine Research and Exploration in the city, which will house biotechnology research.

According to Goldhammer, most organisms used in biotechnology are harmless and are designed to grow at very specific temperatures and nutrient conditions; they die quickly when removed from the laboratory. And these organisms seldom are able to reproduce.

Unlike the Frankenstein of fiction, biotechnology researchers focus on transferring existing characteristics between creatures -- not knitting ones from scratch. A Maryland company, for example, has discovered how to transfer to corn the natural insect resistance of Bermuda grass.

Man has been selectively breeding plants and animals for centuries, coming up with faster race horses and juicier plums. Most of the corn we eat is the result of cross-breeding that would not occur without human intervention.

Although privately funded research is virtually free of regulation, government approval generally is required before an organism can be released into the environment or given to a human patient. Most companies voluntarily follow the laboratory safety guidelines issued by the National Institutes of Health. But this is not required unless federal dollars are being spent.

"Some genetic engineering can be done very safely," says Neil Levitt, a virologist and former researcher with the Army's biological warfare research laboratory at Fort Detrick in Frederick.

"Then there are other types that can cause quite a potential problem. If even one of these [dangerous microbes] gets out, it is going to cause a catastrophe," he says.

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