BOULDER, Colorado -- The Department of Homeland Security will be opening a new $450 million laboratory in Manhattan, Kansas to study biological threats and animal diseases. The new laboratory, to be called the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility and located at Kansas State University, will replace the facility currently located on New York's Plum Island in Long Island Sound.
The Kansas bid beat out several other competitors, including sites in Georgia, Texas, Mississippi and North Carolina. The department's decision is not final and is still open to public comment and review; several of the losing bidders are considering challenging the DHS choice.
DHS has been considering moving the lab to the mainland since it took over Plum Island from the Department of Agriculture in 2003. But there are serious concerns about locating the lab, which studies diseases such as foot and mouth disease and anthrax, in the heart of cattle country. If the safety record in New York is any indication, the potential for serious outbreaks is troubling indeed.
The Plum Island Animal Disease Center, also known as Lab 257, is located just two miles from Long Island's Orient Point and six miles from the Connecticut coast. The research facility there was opened in 1954 to study foot and mouth, and access has been highly restricted ever since; it is currently the only lab in the country permitted to study the disease.
Due to its high security and rather unsavory reputation - the lab conducted research on biological warfare - it has been regarded with deep suspicion by local residents. In his book Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government's Secret Germ Laboratory, Michael C. Carroll charges that at least two major disease outbreaks among humans originated on the island - West Nile virus in 1999 and the ongoing Lyme disease epidemic. His case for the latter is quite compelling.
Lyme disease is transmitted by ticks, and though it was likely described by doctors as early as the late 19th century, the full syndrome was not isolated and identified until 1975, when three patients contracted the disease in southeastern Connecticut - in the town of Lyme, to be precise, from whence the disease derives its name.
By no coincidence, Lyme happens to be in the area of coastal Connecticut closest to Plum Island. The island is also a nesting ground for many migratory birds. Birds are common carriers of ticks, and their usual next stop on their way northward is the mouth of the Connecticut River, where Lyme is located. If you look at any map of the spread of the disease, you can clearly see its origin on the Connecticut coast.
The government has denied that any research on ticks was conducted on Plum Island, but efforts to turn the bugs into biological weapons were explored at Ft. Detrick, Maryland. This research dates back to the Second World War, when several countries, including the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and Japan, tried to develop ways to spread ticks infected with diseases like encephalitis over enemy territory. It only stands to reason that due to the close relationship between Lab 257 and Ft. Detrick, some research on ticks was done on Plum Island; the government also denied studying anthrax there, but that has since been proven untrue. And due to their less than stellar safety record, there is a high probability that the Lyme disease outbreak is the fault of this facility.
I have several family members and friends who have contracted Lyme disease, and it is a very unpleasant - and potentially deadly - ordeal. I will most certainly say good riddance to the lab, and I caution to the people of Kansas to to be skeptical of the government's claims and make sure this project receives full public scrutiny before the first brick is laid in place.
[Maps: www.lightedcharts.com; Centers for Disease Control]
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