Risks lurk in Md.'s high-tech corridor Germ warfare center, medical research lab at highest hazard levels


ANNAPOLIS -- Maryland fire and rescue crews will have one less "bio-headache" when American Type Culture Collection moves to Northern Virginia this month and takes its store of germs with it.

But local emergency crews cannot relax - Montgomery and Frederick counties are still home to America's foremost research institutions on diseases and germ warfare.

Not only are Fort Detrick and the National Institutes of Health still around, but they will soon be home to two of the three "biosafety level 4" labs in the country.

Biosafety level 4 is the highest level of containment for biomedical research, as set by NIH and the Centers for Disease Control.

Level-4 facilities are pressurized, sealed buildings with "submarine-style doors," dunk tanks and special floors impervious to chemicals. Everyone in a level-4 lab works in special suits that have independent air supplies.

Fire officials confident

Montgomery fire officials said they are confident they can deal with the new level-4 lab at NIH, which is set to open this spring to study tuberculosis.

"I'm as comfortable as you can be with these types of things," said Montgomery County Fire Chief Jon C. Grover, who said his teams are prepared for any fire at NIH.

That is little comfort to Arlene S. Allen, who said life in Stratton Woods, just three miles from NIH, is like waiting for a bomb to explode. "It's just a matter of time before the NIH is telling us they're sorry," said Allen, a former president of the North Bethesda Congress of Citizens Associations. "It should be in a desert where if they make a mistake, it won't affect so many people."

But NIH spokesman Don Ralbovsky said neighbors have no reason to worry. "We take all necessary precautions for safety," he said.

At the Army Medical Research and Materiel Command at Fort Detrick, which is already classified as a level-4 facility, the book of worst-case scenarios is the size of the Manhattan phone book, said a spokesman.

Chuck Dasey said those scenarios were developed as part of a 1989 environmental impact statement for the Army base in Frederick County.

But Dasey said he is not worried because of "the small quantities of bio-hazards and redundant safety features of the level-4 facility" at Fort Detrick. He insisted that "fire or even an earthquake could not cause widespread contamination."

Level-4 labs are required to have built-in safety measures in the case of an earthquake or attempted theft. Powerful air filters and security systems keep bio-hazards from getting out of the building.

Let it burn

Dasey said that, if a fire were to break out, Fort Detrick crews would likely just let it burn because intense heat destroys biological materials.

Montgomery officials said the same thing - let it burn.

Grover said the heat from any large fire would kill any cultures, so letting it burn would not pose any health risks.

Montgomery County hazmat team leader Robert Stephan agreed that a burning level-4 building would be left to burn, and added that his crew is ready for anything. "It's like anything else," Stephan said. "If it's not handled properly, it's not good. But, when it is, it can benefit a lot of people in the long run. This is the cost of progress."

Ed Herbert, senior environmental manager at the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection, said he did not consider ATCC or NIH "to be a major hazard in our county." Herbert said he can think of only one letter of citizen concern about ATCC, after it was reported that the bio-tech company sold germ cultures to Iraq a few years ago. He said he was sorry to see the company go.

Officials at ATCC's new Northern Virginia home, meanwhile, said they are ready. Prince William County Fire Chief Mary Beth Michos - who spent 21 years in the Montgomery County Fire Department - said she is "very comfortable" having ATCC in her back yard.

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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