After the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK was shown to be the result this virus’s escape from one of two nearby research labs, I thought it was timely to review a book that investigates this same occurrence in the United States. Lab 257: the Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory (NYC: William Morrow; 2004) by Michael Christopher Carroll, is the riveting story of an animal disease research lab located on an 840-acre island that is only two miles from Long Island, New York, and Olde Lyme, Connecticut, and a mere 85 miles from Manhattan. This book tells the frightening story about this government lab’s spotted history and also reveals that Plum Island Animal Disease Research Laboratory, which is home to many of the deadliest germs known to man, is about as safe as the average high school biology lab.
African swine fever, Rift Valley fever, anthrax, mad cow disease, foot-and-mouth disease, West Nile virus … this lab is home to all these deadly microbes and more. The reason? One of the primary targets for terrorists is to infect a nation’s livestock with dangerous microbes so they can cause widespread famine and panic. Thus, since the end of World War II, our government has been busily researching the bacteria and viruses that can be used to accomplish this goal. To that end, Plum Island’s two research labs, Lab 101 and Lab 257, were designed and established by two men: William Hagan, a veterinarian and former dean of Cornell University’s veterinary school who developed the first weapons-grade strain of anthrax known as Strain 99; and Erich Traub, a Nazi germ warfare expert who worked for Heinrich Himmler and who was allegedly smuggled into the United States in 1949 to work with the CIA, Army, Navy and the USDA.
Currently overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, Plum Island’s stated purpose was to study animal diseases that could threaten our livestock and to design vaccines against them. But the real purpose of Plum Island is to study dangerous animal diseases with the goal of weaponizing them for use against the livestock in other countries — originally the Soviet Union — while protecting our own livestock from such attacks.
Relying on interviews with current and former employees of the labs and with nearby residents, Carroll does his homework by documenting that Plum Island is an astonishingly insecure facility. The author follows the fortunes of Plum Island from its inception, explores how the labs went from the US Army’s jurisdiction to that of the USDA and then to the Department of Homeland Security, and details how many aspects of the labs’ daily maintenance was later sold to the lowest civilian bidder, thus causing the research program to decline in its standards and level of biosafety. Further, Lab 257 reveals instances of gross negligence in biosecurity and of ailing workers who were denied diagnostic assistance by their employers.
Most interesting and troubling to birdwatchers and other outdoors-y types is the author’s investigation into the unproven but nonetheless highly suspicious connections between Plum Island and the sudden appearance of Dutch duck plague (1967), Lyme disease (1975) and West Nile virus (1999) on the East Coast. All of these disease outbreaks were first documented within a few miles of the labs. Further, as if the appearance of these foreign disease organisms are not incriminating enough, the sudden and inexplicable appearance of the Lone Star Tick in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut should be, because this sedentary tick species was formerly confined to the state of Texas. Despite the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s repeated denials of their work with these organisms at Plum Island, there are documents that reveal otherwise. However, even if the government denials are true, these many coincidences are, in my opinion, just too numerous not to be viewed with great suspicion.
This readable 255-page book is carefully researched and documented, including a separate 30-page section of source notes detailing interviews, news stories and other printed source materials along with the author’s own Freedom of Information Act requests for various documents. The book also has a separate inset section containing 30 black and white images, and also embeds within the text several maps of Plum Island, the Eastern flyways followed by migratory birds, and a blueprint for the first floor of Lab 101.
I do have several criticisms. First, the book lacks a glossary and footnotes, which makes it difficult at times to identify the precise source for some of the information presented in the text. I was also disappointed that, after the big build-up at the end of the book, the author did not write more about the aftermath of Hurricane Bob and the power outage that it caused. How did Plum Island clean up the resulting mess? What was the reaction of upper management to the hurricane? Additionally, why was author denied further access to the island after he had already made six visits — he only mentioned that he was denied access by the government due to reasons of “national security”. And one last thing .. perhaps this is nit-picking on the part of a birdwatcher, but I was really annoyed that the author repeatedly referred to Canada geese as “Canadian” geese. Did he talk with any knowledgeable birders or ornithologists while writing this book? If he had, they would have immediately corrected his usage of that erroneous common name.
Nevertheless, in spite the book’s shortcomings, I think Lab 257 presents an eye-opening look into the very real and ever-present dangers of germ warfare research, of government secrecy, and into the gross arrogance and lack of responsibility enjoyed by many of our politicians and government officials. I think Carroll forms the basis for an important argument that homeland security should begin at home; it is essential that our government spend the money necessary to improve biosecurity in this nation’s research laboratories and that it carefully monitor every vial of dangerous microbes, so we can avoid dangerous epidemics of our own making.
Michael Christopher Carroll is a lawyer who spent seven years researching and writing Lab 257. A native of Long Island and an avid outdoorsman, Carroll is now general counsel of a New York-based finance company. He lives on Long Island and in New York City.