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Flaws delay opening of Detrick lab
Originally published April 16, 2010

By Megan Eckstein

Flaws delay opening of Detrick lab
Photo by Staff file photo by Travis Pratt

The National Biodefense Analysis & Countermeasures Center at Fort Detrick in Frederick is shown.
Researchers continue waiting to move into the new Homeland Security lab at Fort Detrick, 11Ú2 years after the building was dedicated, after an endurance test uncovered flaws in the building.

The most serious problem was the placement of valves that allow access to HEPA filters in biosafety level 3 labs, said Pat Fitch, lab director for the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center. Air flows out of the lab space and is filtered before it exits containment suites. The filters must be decontaminated or replaced every few years, but the valves to let workers into the air ducts were too far from the filters, making it challenging for someone to safely access the filter.

Fitch said he would need a subcontractor to make new valves and install them closer to the filters, which could take four to eight months.

"This is about risk management," Fitch said. "It's not impossible to manage the HEPA filters the way they are right now; it's just not where I want to take my risk. So I would rather delay four months and put the valves in now than wait three years until one of those HEPA filters needs to be changed and be arguing about what the safe way is to change them."

Fitch and others at the Battelle National Biodefense Institute, which will operate the lab, found other problems in the biosafety level 3 suites. They realized that, under the right circumstances, contaminated water might bubble back out of the drains on the lower floors of the building. BNBI plans to install water level monitors and a system that would prevent backwash.

A decontamination practice that involved changing a room's air pressure wound up cracking a ceiling in the biosafety level 3 area -- a problem that occurred last June, though at the time no one knew the underlying reason. Fitch said that would be a quick fix, but time was lost figuring out what had gone wrong.

This past winter's atypical weather helped point to a few other problems. Most notably, the biosafety level 4 labs' air pressure monitors determine a room's appropriate air pressure using outdoor conditions as a reference point. But the outdoor sensor did not fare well in winds up to 40 mph. The sensor triggered a system shutdown, which would have allowed people to leave labs but not enter them.

No one would be endangered if this happened again, Fitch said, but if a researcher needed to enter a lab in a timely manner, research could be compromised. The problem could be solved by finding a new location for the outdoor sensor.

Workers also need to patch a few leaks in the roof from the snowstorm, but "those kinds of tasks won't slow us down," he said.

Because BNBI already had a list of changes needed to be made, Fitch decided to install more safety measures. He wants more valve labels, since the building's piping is so complicated.

He also wants to draw out the floor plan on the space above each ceiling -- a space tall enough to walk through -- making it easier for repair crews to understand where they are and what each valve might affect in the floor below.

Lastly, Fitch said he wanted to add air pressure monitors to space above each ceiling, ensuring that no contaminated air was leaking out of the labs. The monitoring system would be the same as what is installed in the hallways.

Given all the fixes that need to be made and the inspections that will follow, Fitch estimated it would be at least 18 months until the building is fully operational. But some research teams may move in in two or three weeks, doing preliminary work and learning more about the building. They will not use any infectious viruses or bacteria, but setting up the labs and working with other materials should familiarize them with the building and alert them to any remaining flaws.

A DNA sequencing team and an electron microscope team that work in biosafety level 2 labs, as well as a virology team that work in level 4 labs, will be the first to move in.

"We have a brand-new building, and while we have decades of experience running a containment lab, no one has ever run the NBACC building," Fitch said. "So you look at that and say, 'Well, how do I reduce the risk?' The first thing you do is run it doing other things that matter, but that aren't as risky, like working with E. coli, working with vaccine strains, working with pathogens that everyone has vaccines for."

Administrators cannot move in yet either because there are a few bugs to be worked out of the air conditioning, Internet and other systems, Fitch said. But he said he hoped to be in the building within a few weeks. The rest of the staff will move in shifts, so that everyone would lose only about half a day of work during the transition.


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