Sunday, March 21, 2004
Plum Island, N.Y. The Plum Island Animal Disease Center off eastern Long Island may have been responsible for outbreaks of Lyme disease and West Nile Virus and could be vulnerable to terrorist attacks, a new book claims.
Although attorney and first-time author Michael Carroll concedes he has no direct evidence, he insists he's right, citing seven years researching "Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government's Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory," published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins.
"Every investigation is about connecting the dots," the author said of his claims. "We know that documents show, that hundreds of hours of interviews show, in this book, Plum Island is run and protects workers ... worse than a junior high school biology laboratory."
Not so, say administrators of the nation's only government laboratory that studies the most dangerous animal diseases. Some medical experts agree.
"I personally just don't think that has any merit," said David Weld, the executive director of the American Lyme Disease Foundation, in Somers, N.Y.
Maureen McCarthy, a top official at the Department of Homeland Security, which recently took over the lab, said: "I guess my first impression is that you can't judge a book by its cover."
More investigation needed
Carroll, who met last month with reporters as they gathered at a ferry dock in Orient Point for a tour of Plum Island, insisted: "It's too coincidental. I'm not a scientist, but all of these occurrences deserve true scientific investigation."
The author chronicles the history of the lab, which the Department of Agriculture opened in 1954, taking possession from the U.S. Army. The Army operated the island as Fort Terry for decades. Plum Island sits off the northern tip of Long Island, surrounded by the Long Island Sound and Gardiners Bay.
This isn't the first time Plum Island has been the focus of a book. Nelson DeMille used the island as the center of his 1997 thriller about deadly viruses and a hidden treasure. In "Plum Island," a detective investigates the murders of two biologists who worked on the island.
The newly created Department of Homeland Security took control of Plum Island last June, although agriculture department scientists still conduct research.
Carroll claims that while security and safety were top priorities in the early days, eventually there were mishaps that called into question whether the site was a hazard. In particular, he notes a 1978 incident in which animals kept in a holding pen outside Lab 257, one of several Plum Island buildings, were diagnosed with foot-and-mouth disease.
An agriculture department spokeswoman conceded that the cause of the incident, which was reported in the media at the time, was never determined. Lab 257 was closed in 1995, and "right now it poses no health hazard," McCarthy said.
Also, since 1978, no animals have been kept outside the biocontainment laboratories, Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Sandy Miller-Hays said. She also disputed Carroll's claims about Lyme disease, saying it was never studied at the facility, and contended that West Nile Virus was studied only after the outbreak was reported in 1999.
Carroll also cites a power outage during Hurricane Bob in 1991 that left some workers knee-deep in virus-contaminated sewage. He insists that these and other incidents led to a lax atmosphere, which made it possible for the lab to be the source of outbreaks like Lyme disease and West Nile Virus.
But Dr. David Graham, of the Suffolk County health department, countered: "I don't believe the laboratory had anything to do with it."
Carroll also ominously points to a revelation first reported by Newsweek in 2001 that Pakistani nuclear scientist Sultan Bashir-ud-Din Mahmood had a New York Times article about Plum Island in his possession when he was arrested in December 2001. Mahmood held meetings with Osama bin Laden in 2000 and 2001, according to his son.
"It becomes not what Mike Carroll thinks in his book about Plum Island, it becomes what do the terrorists think," the author said. McCarthy, the homeland security official, noted that many security changes have taken place since her agency moved in last summer. There are increased security patrols by armed guards, electronic surveillance cameras have been installed, background checks are being done on all employees and escorts accompany all visitors.
"You're talking to somebody who came out of the nuclear weapons business," said McCarthy, the former chief scientist for the National Nuclear Security Administration. "I take this really seriously."