The Army has a cavalier attitude about its desire to experiment with germs that could infect people with incurable diseases, health and medical officials said Saturday.
And accidents could lead to uncontrolled epidemics, they said.A fear of the unknown and an uncertain future were common themes among speakers at a symposium on biological warfare at the University of Utah.
They focused on problems with the Department of Defenses's environmental impact statement on the planned expansion of biological-warfare facilities at Dugway Proving Ground at the concluding session of the two-day seminar.
Dr. David Thurman, director of epidemiological studies at the state Health Department, said his department is concerned about the Department of Defense application for a bio-safety level 4 rating, which would allow the testing of genetically altered germs that could cause incurable diseases.
"They say they are just building a level 4 to leave the door open for the future, but the level 3 diseases already present significant risks to the workers and their families," he said. "The use of the facilities in the future creates the possibility of uncontrolled disastrous epidemics if it is used for level 4 research."
Thurman said his department chose to take a position of resisting the proposed research facility after reviewing the environmental impact statement and finding several flaws.
"The art of English grammar is lost in the document," he said. "There are no simple declarative statements unless they are telling a lie, like when they say there is no danger."
Dr. Zell McGee, a professor of medicine at the University of Utah Medical Center, said the environmental impact statement fails to outline just what potential hazards might come out of the testing.
"We don't know what the risk is at Dugway because the Army has not told us what organisms they will perform the tests on," he said. "The environmental impact statements really skirt around what organisms will be used."
The hints of what diseases might be tested have come from presentations of Dugway representatives, and have left even less room for feelings of security, McGee said.
"Of special concern to us is the Army's cavalier attitude toward aerosolization of bacteria with an unusually high ability to cause severe damage in humans," he said. "The Army's inclusion of endemic organisms as a low hazard is engaging in deception on a near criminal nature."
Endemic diseases are types usually native to a particular region or country. Included in that category are anthrax, tuberculosis and plague.
Speaking from "a different context" was Dr. Kenneth Buchi, assistant professor at the University of Utah College of Medicine. He took the stance of a concerned citizen with the special insight of his profession.
He advocated changes in the environmental impact statement recommended by the state medical association, including a plan to notify authorities in the event of an accidental spill of germs and the establishment of a scientific survey team to monitor the testing.
"We have to push for more openness in the process, and less `classified' information," he said.