With a growing number of biotechnology research labs and companies in Montgomery and Frederick counties, the question of how safe area residents and businesses are from contamination breaches was a major theme of a conference in Rockville on Monday.
It’s a difficult question to answer because getting clear information on what pathogens and products some labs, such as at Fort Detrick in Frederick, are handling has been difficult for the general public, said Earl Stoddard, public health program manager with the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security in Baltimore.
He said he hasn’t heard of any breaches in recent years, and he didn’t want to see biotech research stymied by overregulation.
In 2002, employees at a U.S. Army biodefense laboratory at Fort Detrick discovered anthrax spores had escaped laboratory walls into the building’s unprotected areas, and officials implemented new security measures soon afterward.
“We know these labs are doing important scientific research that benefits the public,” Stoddard said. “The other side is: Does the public have a right to know what kind of research is being conducted and have knowledge of security procedures involved? That’s the balance we are trying to reach.”
The Containment Laboratory Community Advisory Committee, which formed in Frederick in 2010 to improve information between the public and labs, has an ideal structure of being an advisory body with no real authority, said Beth Willis, committee chair.
“We are really about building relationships,” she said. “I don’t think it would be appropriate to have authority over the labs.”
Communication and transparency by labs in Frederick County have improved since 2010, Willis said. But while productive, discussions about “institutionalizing an ongoing communication process for the sharing of safety performance information with the public” remain a “work in progress,” according to the committee’s most recent annual report.
Members of that committee are appointed by the mayor, Board of Aldermen and Board of County Commissioners.
The meeting of about 85 researchers, professors and public officials at the Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville was part of an annual series of public health conferences coordinated by the University of Maryland center and Middle Atlantic Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases since 2009.
Past subjects have included infectious diseases such as West Nile virus and the potential of a pandemic flu.