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Date:  March 4, 2010

Contacts:  William Kearney, Director of Media Relations

Jennifer Walsh, Media Relations Officer

Alison Burnette, Media Relations Assistant

Office of News and Public Information

202-334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

 

for immediate release

 

‘High Confidence’ in Safety Procedures at New Fort Detrick Lab Despite Problems in Environmental Impact Statement; Better Communication With Public Is Urged

 

FREDERICK, Md. -- A new National Research Council report requested by Congress finds several problems in an environmental impact statement prepared by the U.S. Army for its expansion of biocontainment laboratories at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., to study deadly pathogens, but adds that current safety procedures and regulations at the labs meet or exceed accepted standards, giving the committee that wrote the report a “high degree of confidence” that appropriate protections for workers and the public are in place.

 

The committee held public meetings to gather information from officials of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) and contractors involved in the development of its environmental impact statement, as well as from Fort Detrick emergency personnel, the Frederick County Board of Commissioners, and members of the local community.  The committee also met with officials from Frederick Memorial Hospital and Frederick County’s emergency management and health departments.

 

The environmental impact statement estimated the effects of potential mishaps at the new USAMRIID facilities, including “maximum credible event” scenarios where Ebola virus and the bacteria that causes Q fever are released from an exhaust stack.  However, the committee could not verify the estimate that such an event would lead to insignificant ground concentrations in the surrounding environment and would not pose a hazard to the nearby community.  The data to support this estimate was lacking, missing, or not transparent in the statement, according to the committee, whose own calculations indicated the potential for significantly higher exposure to those in the surrounding area.  Although an exceptionally large aerosol release of a pathogen might pose a health risk, this is an inappropriate maximum credible event because there are no reasonably foreseeable scenarios where such a release could occur, the committee noted.

 

In addition, the environmental impact statement did not adequately document or characterize individual risk of exposure or infection, nor did it consider potential exposures to workers and others on the base itself or how the spread of a pathogen would be affected by population size and density.  Although Congress mandated the new labs be located at Fort Detrick as part of a larger biodefense campus, it would have been appropriate for the statement also to consider risks at an alternative location, such as in a less populated area, which would have provided a comparison helpful for evaluating risk-management strategies.

 

Despite these issues, the committee determined that it would not be useful to propose specific revisions to the environmental impact statement given that construction of the new facilities has begun.  Rather, the Army should develop new guidelines for conducting hazard assessments of biocontainment facilities.   Currently there is no specific guidance for such assessments.

 

The committee’s confidence that appropriate measures are in place to protect Fort Detrick workers and surrounding communities was based on several factors, including that the new facilities are being constructed under standards set by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which must inspect and approve the facilities.  In addition, physical security will be greater because it is an Army base; in fact, the Army has been a leader in developing cutting-edge requirements for high- and maximum-containment facilities.  Also, USAMRIID has taken steps to improve safety when problems have been identified, and the new facilities will operate under even more stringent guidelines than were previously in place.

 

Although the Army has taken the lead in establishing a robust biosecurity program to govern access to risky pathogens, no program can stop all threats of theft or misuse of infectious agents, the committee said.  The community became particularly concerned about this after the FBI accused a USAMRIID researcher of carrying out the 2001 anthrax attacks on media outlets and Congress.  More formalized training for laboratory workers on their individual and collective responsibility and accountability is needed along with increased attention to behavioral signals that may identify “at risk” personnel.

 

USAMRIID, Fort Detrick, and Frederick County have resources and partnerships in place to deal with emergency situations, but the committee had concerns that not enough clinicians are available with the necessary training in diagnosing and treating diseases caused by organisms studied at the fort.  It recommended that specialist physicians be on hand to consult on unusual infectious diseases as well as provide continuity in communications and coordination between USAMRIID scientists and community physicians and public health personnel.

 

The notion that USAMRIID will not act openly when safety breaches occur contributes to a lack of trust among many in the local community, the committee said, adding that communication with the public has not been adequate to allay community concerns.  A more proactive, two-way communication effort could help, especially one that promptly discloses laboratory incidents, provides fact sheets on pathogens under study, and describes safeguards.

 

Holding an open house when the new facility is finished or opening a visitors center should be considered, and it might be useful to include community members on the Institutional Biosafety Committee.  USAMRIID should create a community advisory board as well.

 

This study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense.  The National Research Council is the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering.  Together with the Institute of Medicine, these organizations make up the National Academies.  They are independent, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under an 1863 congressional charter.  Committee members, who serve pro bono as volunteers, are chosen by the Academies for each study based on their expertise and experience and must satisfy the Academies' conflict-of-interest standards.  The resulting consensus reports undergo external peer review before completion.  For more information, visit http://national-academies.org/studycommitteprocess.pdf.  A committee roster follows.

Pre-publication copies of Evaluation of the Health and Safety Risks of the New USAMRIID High-Containment Facilities at Fort Detrick, Maryland are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu.  Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

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[ This news release and report are available at http://national-academies.org ]

 

NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL

Division on Earth and Life Studies

Board on Life Sciences

 

Committee to Review the Health and Safety Risks of

High Containment Laboratories at Fort Detrick

 

Charles N. Haas (chair)

L.D. Betz Chair Professor of Environmental Engineering, and

Head

Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering

Drexel University

Philadelphia

 

Nancy D. Connell

Professor of Infectious Disease

Center for Emerging Pathogens

Department of Medicine

University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey

Newark

 

Donald A. Henderson1,2

Professor of Medicine and Public Health

School of Medicine

University of Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh

 

Mark T. Hernandez

Professor

Department of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering

University of Colorado

Boulder

 

Barbara Johnson

Consultant for Biosafety and Biosecurity

Johnson and Associates LLC

Herndon, Va.

 

Henry M. Mathews

Independent Consultant in Biosafety and Biocontainment

Atlanta

 

Timothy C. Reluga

Assistant Professor of Mathematics

Department of Mathematics

Pennsylvania State University

University Park

 

Jonathan Richmond

Biosafety Consultant 

Jonathan Richmond and Associates

Southport, N.C.

 

Leonard M. Siegel

Executive Director

Center for Public Environmental Oversight

Mountain View, Calif.

 

STAFF

 

Susan Martel

Study Director

 

                                                                       

1 Member, National Academy of Sciences

2 Member, Institute of Medicine