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Fort Detrick: Watchdog group seeks state oversight of labs

Wednesday - 2/15/2012, 6:00am  ET


A Fort Detrick watchdog group is pushing for legislation that would require private, nonprofit and academic laboratories working with potentially hazardous materials to be licensed and regulated by the state.

State Sen. Ron Young introduced legislation earlier this month that would consolidate all regulation and licensing of private and academic biosafety level 3 and 4 labs under the purview of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. That bill had been assigned to the Finance Committee, Young's chief of staff, Ryan Trout, said in an email Tuesday.

Young was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

"It is my understanding that there are at least four labs in our area, but due to their exemption from the Freedom of Information Act, we cannot be sure of their numbers or locations," Young wrote.

People working in BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs often handle highly toxic or contagious agents, including anthrax or Ebola. Such labs have operated for decades at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and, more recently, at the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center at Fort Detrick. Those labs are regulated by several federal agencies.

But members of the Containment Laboratory Community Advisory Committee said during a meeting Tuesday that they are concerned that nongovernmental labs may be operating without sufficient scrutiny to protect workers and the public from potential exposures. Though the nongovernmental labs are still monitored annually by either the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this is an attempt to rein them in further by allowing the state to establish its own standards for operation and for the design of future labs, members said.

"We need to somehow convey that this is not an albatross around progress," committee member Ray Hunter said. "We should have put in place what should have been there a long time ago."

The bill would extend to all new facilities and existing ones that increase in size by at least 10 percent; other labs would be grandfathered in. That provision concerned some members, including Hunter, who said he believed all labs should have to face a thorough review before they could receive a state license.

Other potential hurdles facing the bill are a current lack of sponsorship in the state House of Delegates and a feared perception that the bill would deter business growth, committee member Karen Young said.

"This is not cumbersome," said Young, who is also a City of Frederick alderwoman. "This is just giving the state some responsibility for oversight."