Mountain West Perspectives
Science next door
Science next door
By Carlotta Grandstaff
for Headwaters News
Americans of a certain age may well remember one of the most frightful images of the 1950s, and no, it's not a mushroom cloud over the Nevada desert. It's the iron lung, a ghastly, cylindrical contraption that pumped air into the paralyzed lungs of the polio victim lying inside.
The iron lung was used in some instances only temporarily, and did save lives. But for some polio victims, many of them children, the iron lung was a coffin in which they lived out their lives, unable to move, forcibly ventilated, 24/7, year after year.
Thankfully, the iron lung has vanished from our collective memory. The dreaded poliovirus that spawned its invention has been vanquished, and there is no parent in this country who fears sending his or her child to the city pool this summer, as parents did prior to the introduction of the polio vaccine in 1954.
Scientists who study emerging diseases
Once a scourge, polio is only a bad memory in the developed world. It's being driven from the developing world as well, one village at a time. In time, polio will go the way of smallpox, another plague banished by science.
It wasn't long ago that infectious disease was considered a career dead end for young scientists. Though polio, smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, pertussis, cholera, yellow fever, malaria and diphtheria have long ceased to plague American and European cities, infectious diseases are making a comeback.
Newly emerging diseases – HIV, hanta virus and West Nile virus, to name but a few - burst into being only recently, seemingly out of nowhere. While most of us are mystified about the how and why of this new viral explosion, scientists who study emerging diseases strongly suspect, and have evidence to show, that newly emerging diseases are tied to the ways in which we alter our environment.
A few examples:
About three decades ago, researchers interested in stopping the spread of the ubiquitous knapweed began collecting the weed's natural predators from central Europe, where the weed is native. Knapweed is responsible for huge agricultural losses in western Montana, and is turning some sections of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness into a weed-choked monoculture.
Ridding western Montana of knapweed was, and still is, considered an impossible task. Halting its spread, however, was thought noble, necessary and most of all, doable, not so much with chemical herbicides, but by releasing gall flies, which feed on knapweed seed heads, thereby limiting the spread. For some years it seemed the experiment was successful; though knapweed has become a permanent fixture on the landscape, it no longer thrives as it did before the release of the predator gall fly.
But last year, one Forest Service scientist discovered something disturbing about gall flies. The insect, gathered from Europe and bred and released across western Montana for thirty years, lays eggs which successfully overwinter in the weed seed heads. The gall fly larvae seems to have become a new and important food source for deer mice, which would normally die off over the winter, leaving only small surviving populations in spring. In test plots, the deer mouse population increased by nearly
three times. And with the increase in deer mice populations came a corresponding increase in hanta virus, a deadly respiratory disease carried and transmitted by deer mice and discovered only a decade ago.
In the arid Powder River Basin area of northeast Wyoming, 60 million gallons of water are pumped out of the ground to the surface every day, the result of coalbed methane well drilling. Warm, shallow ponds have formed across the drought-plagued landscape, creating perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes, particularly Culex tarsalis, a species widely distributed across North America west of the Mississippi.
Last summer, researchers discovered that six of eight radio-collared sage grouse hens at the coalbed methane site near Spotted Horse, Wyo. died of West Nile encephalitis. At two other nearby sites, where there is no coalbed methane development, only one of 42 radio-collared sage grouse hens died of the virus.
At some point
More research is necessary before scientists can confirm the link between coal bed methane development and West Nile encephalitis, but it is a fact that Culex tarsalis is a particularly efficient vector of encephalitis.
Chronic wasting disease has been documented in penned game farm animals, and the possibility exists that the disease can be transmitted from penned herds to free-ranging wildlife. The transmission route is unknown, but it appears likely that animals must be in close contact for the disease to spread. Penned elk also have been known to escape into the wild, breeding with red deer and polluting the gene pool. The long-range consequences of interbreeding are unknown, but wildlife biologists fear they
could be serious and irreversible.
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever appeared suddenly on the Montana side of the Bitterroot Range in the late 19th century. The native Salish were unaware of the disease, as were the Jesuit priests who established a mission in the Bitterroot Valley, the epicenter of the pestilence. Capt. William Clark, on his return trip through the Bitterroot Valley in early July 1806, when his men could have been expected to come into contact with ticks, did not report the disease.
What was it that created the conditions necessary for the sudden appearance of tick fever? Scientists believe it was the deforestation of the west side of the Bitterroot Valley. In 1887, one timber mill was cutting 10,000 feet of lumber a day. Less than a decade later, the Bitterroot Range was yielding between 60 and 70 million board feet annually. The scrub vegetation that grew up on the forest in the wake of so much deforestation created habitat for many small mammals that harbored the pathogen
and the ticks that fed on the mammals.
If we are to keep free of infectious diseases it seems clear that disease prevention rather than disease cure should be the goal. In fact, preventing disease is the foundation of public health in this country.
At the turn of the 20th century, New York City, the birthplace of public health, was a disease-ridden cesspool. Crowded tenements, dangerous working conditions and lack of plumbing and sewage disposal created the perfect conditions for the spread of contagious diseases. Improvements in housing, occupational safety laws and proper plumbing arguably did more to improve the human condition than did the introduction of antibiotics decades later.
But disease prevention in the 21st century is considerably more complicated than making infrastructure improvements. It would mean that humans would have to stop clearing the forests, cease penning wild game and put an end to burning fossil fuels, which has been linked to about two dozen recently identified infectious diseases. But changing human behaviors and consumption patterns globally is as likely as finding a cure for HIV/AIDS by tomorrow morning.
The only remaining alternative, then, is scientific research that will lead to therapies for diseases that only recently burst on to the world scene: hemorrhagic fevers, tick-borne encephalitis and others designated Biosafety Level 4, because of their deadliness and lack of therapies.
And that means public acceptance of more strict containment research labs.
The National Institutes of Health has made the study of emerging infectious diseases a priority, and has received funding for the construction of four Biosafety Level 4 labs.
In one location, Hamilton, Mont., the NIH has proposed a $66.5 million, 105,000-square-foot Biosafety Level 4 lab within the enclosed perimeter of the 76-year-old Rocky Mountain Laboratories.
The new lab will allow scientists to study the world's most virulent pathogens in a secure environment. But opposition groups in Hamilton - and in Boston, Mass. and Davis, Ca., two other proposed locations for Biosafety Level 4 labs - have formed in a shortsighted effort to stop the projects from moving forward.
Three groups in Hamilton and Missoula forced the government to expand its environmental analysis of the project, but didn't stop the project entirely. In June, the NIH announced that construction of the lab would begin by summer's end.
Opposition to such an intellectually exciting project has been disappointing, shortsighted and selfish. The arguments against the lab run the gamut from mundane concerns over noise and dust during the construction phase to vague worries of accidental release of deadly viruses into the surrounding neighborhood to unfounded fears that the lab will shift its focus from public health research to bioterrorism weapons manufacturing.
Noise and dust problems affect only a small area, and in any case will last only a short while. The pathogens that someday might be studied at the Hamilton lab already exist in many environments around the world, including in western Montana, which has experienced hanta virus. And, finally, the U.S. is prohibited by international treaty from developing bioterrorism weapons.
It's that last statement, of course, that draws the most contempt from opponents who doubt whether the duplicitous Bush administration can be trusted to adhere to the treaty. Said one man: You can just bet that if the government is going to do it, they'll screw it up somehow.
That argument doesn't take into consideration the public health problems created by private companies which, arguably, have made more people sick than any government screw-up – Hooker Chemical at Love Canal, N.Y., Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Co. at Times Beach, Mo. And, of course, W.R. Grace at Libby, Mont.
At some point we have to stop being cynical about our government. And in any case, mankind clearly is not going to stop altering his environment. There's neither the societal will nor the political leadership to make us consider the consequences of our ecological recklessness.
The next best approach, then, is developing therapies for what ails us.
At its core, the opposition to Biosafety Level 4 labs is selfish because virtually everyone in the developed world has been vaccinated against the diseases that in recent memory killed, scarred, crippled or maimed.
We don't much fear the really scary, science fiction germs such as Ebola because they don't live in our neighborhoods.
But they live in other people's neighborhoods and those people deserve the same world-class science that vanquished our own former public health enemies.
Opponents to the Biosafety Level 4 labs say they fear that a killer virus will somehow escape into the environment. Those viruses are already loose in the environment. The point of these labs is to create a safe place to study them so that someday they'll be banished entirely from the environment. Just like smallpox.
Carlotta Grandstaff is a former newspaper reporter and a freelance writer in Hamilton, Mont.
Lab's work could win the West again
By Shellie Nelson, assistant editor
July 21, 2004
The scientific research done in Hamilton, Mont.'s Rocky Mountain Laboratories has real-life implications to Westerners and to the rest of the nation.
The Rocky Mountain Laboratories' application to become a Biosafety Level 4 lab was met with criticism and concerted efforts to stop the National Institute of Health from building a $66.5 million, 105,000-square-foot specifically to study infectious diseases.
Opposition to the expanded laboratory in Hamilton ran the gamut from complaints about noise and dust caused by the original construction process to fears that deadly pathogens may escape the laboratory, or that the laboratory's focus may shift in the future from studying infectious diseases to work on developing biological weapons.
Groups such as Coalition for a Safe Lab, Friends of the Bitterroot and Women's Voices for the Earth asked that the environmental study for the laboratory be expanded to address potential risks to residents should any pathogens escape and what the laboratory would do to prevent such escapes or mitigate the harm should any releases occur.
Yet many of the pathogens studied at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories are already out and about in the West: Lyme disease, hanta virus, West Nile virus, and chronic wasting disease.
Work performed at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories has already unearthed interesting ties between the environment and infectious disease, two of which may have far-reaching implications on activities played out on Western lands.
The 30-year battle to stop the spread of the spotted knapweed across the West using gall flies has had the disturbing side effect of increasing populations of deer mice that feed on the larvae of the gall fly. Deer mice have been proven to be carriers of hanta virus, a deadly respiratory disease discovered only a decade ago. As deer mice populations increase, so do hanta virus infection rates.
Coalbed methane drilling in Wyoming and other western states produces millions of gallons of water per day, and holding ponds of that water are breeding grounds for mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus. Last summer, six of eight radio-collared sage grouse were found to have died from West Nile encephalitis near coalbed methane development sites near Spotted Horse, Wyo. Scientists are working to see if
they can connect the dots between coalbed water, mosquitoes and the spread of West Nile Virus.
Chronic-wasting disease is marching its way through the Western states, decimating elk and deer populations and shutting down game farms in some states and leading other states to ban game farms.
Human activity on lands in the West are creating ever-widening footprints that affect the land, wildlife and humans who live there. Scientists at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories are working on ways to erase or ease the costs of those footprints.
NIMBYism has no place in the argument against the Biosafety Level 4 in Hamilton because the work done there ultimately benefits the residents and wildlife of the West, right in the lab's back yard.
"I t's redundant to what the state's really requiring of us. We don’t really see a change.
Mountain West Perspectives
Many of the opponents to the planned Biosafety Level 4 laboratory in Hamilton, Mont., are environmentalists with years of experience forcing the federal government to meet higher standards.
In the case of the Rocky Mountain Laboratories project, they’ve successfully maneuvered the National Institutes of Health into producing a more detailed environmental analysis.
It might benefit society if they also turned their intellect, passion and attention to the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Defense.
Earlier this year a Forest Service researcher in Missoula found that non-native insects released in the early 1970s to attack knapweed may be indirectly responsible for an increase in the population of hanta virus-infected mice. And just last week, another non-native insect was released in six locations along the Bitterroot River to attack leafy spurge, a noxious weed that, like knapweed, was inadvertently brought to this country from Eurasia and is threatening native species and agriculture.
Eurasian insects – or “biocontrol agents” - undergo a testing and screening process before they’re approved for release in this country. The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to make sure that before leafy spurge flea beetles or gall flies are released in Montana, or anywhere else, they prove incapable of surviving an entire life cycle on corn or bitterroots or some other desirable native or crop species.
A group representing U.S. land agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of the Interior gives a thumbs up or thumbs down before the insects are approved for importation to the U.S. Collected insects are then quarantined and checked for parasites before they’re released into their new environment.
It all sounds pretty thorough until one considers that there’s no National Environmental Policy Act governing the process and no public comment period.
Some would argue that we should trust our federal agencies to make decisions without having the public weigh in every time. It’s a valid argument until we realize that we already have some information that releasing foreign insects may harm public health.
It might be wise, then, to subject future releases to a more thorough analysis, including a public comment period.
Likewise with the Department of Defense. One $6 billion DOD project, MUOS, for Mobile User Objective System, was put out to bid last year. It seeks to create mobile phones for the “warfighter” (as they call soldiers in the military-industrial complex).
In the words of one defense contractor, these mobile phones “will allow the warfighter on the ground to radio the pilot in the air to drop a bomb on the school below.”
Subjecting the Department of Defense to the NEPA process seems reasonable, given the potential damage to land and human health its weapons can cause. Of course, it will never happen.
If NEPA were expanded to include a few large-scale projects, like MUOS, and smaller ones, like foreign bug release, we might gain a greater measure of control over government projects that affect us.
The National Institutes of Health has set the standard with its scrutiny of, and community input into, the Biosafety Level 4 lab. It would be a good example to emulate.
Wait a second - I need to stop being cynical of our government so RML can build their Level 4 lab?
RML has not demonstrated the ability or the focus to even manage the proper room temperature to support their primates - that's a basic process and management control issue.
RML can't properly set and control a thermostat - let alone manage a Level 4 lab.
Fact: RML is totally under-funding and totally lacking on managing their processes. But this is not an issue unique to RML, this is typical of US government facilities.
Process management and control is overlooked in almost every single government facility. You are being foolhardy to trust the U.S. government to manage a process where Level 4 biohazards exist.
Have you investigated and talked to folks at White Sands, Livermore and elsewhere to understand how chronic this process management issue is throughout our government's most sensitive labs and research facilities?
Your opinion seems to be null and void of the critical facts - you have failed to consider the evidence that is already before us on specific details on the RML proposal.
Get off your soap box and stop talking down to your audience about how mankind is this and that - look at the level 1 details and face the fact that the U.S. government is not capable of properly managing and controlling a Level 4 facility's process management and control.
How many PhDs does RML have on staff who are solely chartered with process management and control?
The three citizen groups critical of a government plan to build a Biosafety Level 4 medical research lab in Hamilton, Mont., have scored a success in that they convinced the National Institutes of Health to conduct a more detailed environmental analysis.
That's as it should be, since citizens should be able to weigh in on government projects that might affect them.
They've gone too far, though, because it seems the real agenda, the unspoken goal, is to stop the project altogether.
At the same time, the groupthink they've fostered in the community at large has resulted in a generally unfavorable, if vague, opposition to a project which has had few public champions.
Scientists who work at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories, where the Biosafety Level 4 lab will be built, are distrusted because they have a vested interest. Resident non-scientists who favor the project for the jobs and intellectual cachet it will bring to Hamilton haven't mounted a defense.
Biosafety Level 4 pathogens are airborne viruses that can kill humans and for which there are no known therapies. The very term has unfortunately become synonymous with Ebola, that Stephen King-like germ that makes the blood run cold in people who don't have it, and makes the blood just run and run in people who do.
Ebola is just one virus of many classified as Biosafety Level 4, and whether it is ever studied at RML remains to be seen, given the logistics of safe transport from such a remote location as the sub-Saharan jungle where it lives.
Still, some Hamilton residents fear Ebola might someday exist in their community, regardless of how well guarded it would be in a negative-pressure biocontainment lab.
What they're forgetting is how easily the virus could travel to the community from its African home via travelers. If Ebola were ever to exist in western Montana, better it be confined to a research lab than running around loose and undetected in the Missoula airport.
They're also forgetting that risk is inherent in scientific research.
Consider the Salk vaccine for polio and the Cutter Laboratory disaster of 1955. Polio cases had soared from 5,000 cases in 1933 to 59,000 less than two decades later.
The vaccine was introduced in trials in 1954 and proved so successful that a mass immunization was underway by the following year.
In April 1955, some 423,000 people were inoculated against polio with a vaccine that was improperly formulated by Cutter Laboratory. About 200 healthy people were inadvertently infected with polio as a result, and 11 of them died. There was no public outcry. Rather, the federal government temporarily halted the polio immunization program in May, fixed the problem and resumed the program that same year.
The hope for the next generation of scientific research – research embodied in Biosafety Level 4 labs - is that someday we'll look back in wonder that Ebola was ever such a threat to humanity, just as we look back in gratitude now to those who sacrificed their lives and their health in the search for a polio vaccine.
Mountain West Voices
Hear weekly stories from the Rocky Mountain West as gathered by Clay Scott