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WALPOLE

Biohazard fears voiced at hearing

Siemens plant may use more dangerous agents

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / April 18, 2010

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Frightened of biological spills, inadequate disaster response, and even a high incidence of autism and other disorders in children who live near Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics, Walpole residents packed a public hearing Tuesday to urge the Board of Health to heed safety before adopting regulations for the 500,000-square-foot manufacturing facility.

The emotionally charged meeting drew dozens of residents who doubt Siemens’s ability to safeguard the community as it expands its output of diagnostic tests to biosafety Level 3, which involves biological agents and viruses that can become airborne and cause serious or deadly infection. Currently the company employs only level 1 and 2 agents.

“I am scared to death,’’ said Chandler Smalling of Hale Drive, located behind the Coney Street building. “Perfectly normal, healthy people have died recently. Someone recently came down with lupus. And this is in my backyard.’’

Residents questioned whether something from the plant has caused disease or illness, including at least seven cases of autism. Beth Anderson of Moose Hill Road said her daughter was born with mitochondrial disease a year after they moved in. Around the same time, Anderson said, a neighbor also gave birth to a severely disabled child.

“You need to start tracking what’s going on with these children,’’ she said. “There is something wrong in Walpole.’’

Health director Robin Chappell said, however, that state Department of Public Health statistics show autism rates in Walpole are below the state average.

Tuesday’s hearing was part of the run-up to a May 3 Town Meeting that will consider a pair of articles, one of which would create a Biotech Overlay District for Siemens and bump up that district’s classified biosafety level. The second article would limit facilities to biosafety levels 1 and 2 elsewhere in town and allow new companies to construct facilities only in limited manufacturing, industrial, or highway business zones — giving Siemens, some say, an advantage.

The Siemens biolab, built in 1993, operated largely under the radar until last year, when selectmen had to kill a zoning proposal to ban biosafety Level 3 work after they learned that the company, the town’s largest taxpayer, was moving in that direction. Consequently, the Board of Health is hurrying to impose regulations, which currently do not exist, while other officials are pushing the zoning changes.

In 2008, Siemens christened a $100 million addition designed to raise annual production of its diagnostic tests from 600 million units to more than 1 billion. Examples of Level 3 substances that might be used in the tests include mycobacterium tuberculosis, bacillus anthraxis — or anthrax — West Nile virus, SARS, salmonella typhi, and yellow fever.

Under the new regulations proposed by the Board of Health, Siemens would have to apply for a permit to manufacture the more high-risk tests, or any that deal with recombinant DNA. Doctors’ offices and others that perform Level 1 or Level 2 tests, like blood tests, would not need permits.

A biotechnology committee will also be established to oversee the new regulations, when adopted.

At Tuesday’s meeting, officials repeatedly said a company like Siemens could operate on any level it pleased without the new regulations. That irked Finance Committee member and former selectwoman Joanne Muti, who said it isn’t true. She said the town for the last year has been rewriting its zoning regulations, which include language that addresses biotechnology. That bylaw is separate from the Board of Health’s regulations.

Al DeNapoli, vice chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said he had concerns about the plant moving into biosafety Level 3 work. But in a letter that he asked Board of Health chairman William Morris to read into the record, DeNapoli said he changed his mind after he learned more about it.

“These are not mom-and-pop researchers experimenting while putting everyone else at risk,’’ wrote DeNapoli, who was not able to attend the hearing. “We dispelled concerns we had with Level 3.’’

Board of Health member Carol Paul said she also came to terms with her skepticism after a tour of the facility.

“That plant is immaculate,’’ Paul said. “They have protocols. It’s a small operation, and a very safe one.’’

No research is done at the Walpole plant, said Michael Canary, Siemens’s senior director for reagent manufacturing, process engineering, and facilities. He said the company only manufactures tests in Walpole and wants to expand its base of operations to products that require Level 3 agents.

Siemens’s scientists are interested in diagnostic tests using proteins that bond with the biological agents for use in diagnosis and treatment, he said.

“Level 3 would not be on all shifts,’’ Canary said of the Walpole plant, which is open 24 hours a day, five days a week. “Quantities are small, at a bench-top scale.’’

Typically, Canary said, a vial that contains one of the higher-level components is opened only a few minutes a day as a scientist works with the substance. Because of that, safety is assured, he said.

If residents fight against the plant, Canary said the company will have no choice but to close and move manufacturing to another location. In the past, Siemens’s officials have said possible alternative locations include Germany, where the corporation is based.

“Siemens would be forced to take our new products elsewhere,’’ he said. “But this is the right location to do this.’’

Some residents said the town’s ability to only levy a $300 fine per day for violations isn’t enough to keep the company accountable. But selectmen chairman Christopher Timson said the town has more ammunition than meets the eye: “The Board of Health has the right to shut someone down. That would cost them a lot of money,’’ he said.

Suzanne Shroba, a physician who attended the public hearing and several times offered her medical opinion, provided facts from the Centers for Disease Control that at times differed considerably with what health panel members said. After the hearing, she said she is frustrated with the draft regulations that officials at the beginning of the meeting said were the product of their own research and a compilation of rules borrowed from a number of communities that permit biosafety Level 3 agents, including Cambridge and Oxford.

“There are a lot of holes in them. You can’t piecemeal regulations from other towns and make it fit here,’’ she said, adding that Walpole is unique and what is good for Cambridge won’t work in a more rural community.

Board of Health members will amend the draft regulations and return on April 27 for either a vote or more discussion.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at mmbolton1@verizon.net.

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