NATICK – Natick’s health officials are considering implementing local lab regulations, just weeks after plans to redevelop Natick Mall’s Neiman Marcus store into a research and development facility fueled community safety conversations.
Last month, the mall’s neighbors expressed concern that NM Redevelopment’s plans for the site could eventually include a laboratory. The project is still in its early stages and the developers have not yet confirmed that the project will, in fact, include a lab.
The ensuing conversations put the spotlight on biosecurity levels, designations assigned to laboratories to determine the protective measures needed, depending on the materials they use.
What do the biosecurity levels mean?
Each level of biosafety (BSL) carries certain risks, but also certain protective equipment, safety measures and supervision, explained Director of Public Health Michael Boudreau in a presentation at the Board of Health meeting on Tuesday.
For example, BSL 1 laboratories work with materials that pose minimal risk to the community.
“A biosafety level 1 lab is essentially a high school lab,” Boudreau said.
BSL 2 laboratories may work with microbes that pose moderate risk under certain conditions, but the materials at play “are not exotic,” he said. “They aren’t known to sneak up on you.”
He said BSL 3 labs could handle microbes like tuberculosis or COVID-19, while BSL 4 labs would see more dangerous materials like Ebola or Marburg virus.
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NM Redevelopment, a subsidiary of Boston-based real estate firm Bulfinch Companies Inc., previously told the Daily News that the property is intended to be Biosafety Level (BSL) 1 or 2 and that BSL 4 is out of developer scope.
According to Boudreau, the regulation and supervision of laboratories could come from a range of agencies, departments and policies: local, state and federal. Locally, that includes the zoning statute, the fire department, the building department and the health board, he explained.
Do other communities regulate the workshops?
“Many Massachusetts towns or cities have enacted regulations banning biomedical research operating on BSL 3 or BSL 4,” he said, citing Lexington, Bedford, Newton, Framingham and Cambridge as some neighboring communities with regulations in place.
He suggested that the Board of Health discuss developing their own regulations for Natick.
“We certainly have this ability,” Boudreau said. “We can certainly draft them. I would suggest, if we go that route, we ban BSL 3 and above.
He said the intention is not to stop scientific progress, “but we also want to make sure it is done safely with the protection of public health in mind.”
Boudreau said he could draft regulations and seek the advice of the city council before submitting them to the Board of Health at a later date, and council members seemed open to the idea.
“It certainly appears to be an appropriate regulation that we should have,” said council secretary Don Breda.
Neighbors do the weight
Community members who spoke at the meeting also seemed open to possible regulations.
“We would really like to urge you to adopt a statute that includes a minimum setback of 1,000 feet between exhaust chimneys from any facility housing biolabs to the nearest residential property,” said Stacy Randel, who lives in Nouvelle at Natick, an apartment building adjacent to the mall.
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He was among several neighbors who raised concerns about exhaust fumes or fumes from a potential laboratory contaminating the air in their homes.
“No exhaust gas filtration system is 100% effective,” Randel said.
According to Patricia Elmore, also a resident of Nouvelle, the concern of the neighbors has nothing to do with research, but with safety.
“I’m a statistic,” he said. “Many of the people who live here are doctors and researchers themselves. We are not against research. We are not against science, but we don’t want them where we live and where we eat ».
Raj Goyal, a professor of medicine who said he was in charge of managing laboratory complexes, called for more local supervision and regulation.
“All security is local,” he said.