You pass through multiple doorways and undergo multiple identity checks, and then enter the room where all your clothes come off. You can keep your eyeglasses, but that’s it.
You have crossed the threshold from the outer sections of Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories into a separate structure within: the Biosafety Level 4 laboratory, where scientists are allowed to study some of the world’s deadliest microbes.
This earthquake-proof inner sanctum has 12-inch thick walls. It isn’t open yet, but people work there on less deadly germs to train for the day when, they hope, it will be cleared for operation.
You put on scrubs and socks, put your clothes in a locker, walk through a tiny shower stall, and step into the suit room. Its walls and floor are epoxy-coated for easy cleaning.
Bulky blue plastic overalls hang on hooks. After putting on surgical gloves, you climb into the suit and pull a horizontal zipper across the front. Plastic flaps seal it tight. Equipped with HEPA filters, each of these suits costs $3,300.
You step into rubber garden boots and attach the nozzle of a coiled red-orange hose to a valve at your waist. A ceaseless hiss begins as the suit fills with air, creating pressure to ensure that nothing from the outside can get in.
The lab’s air-handling system does the opposite, creating negative pressure so that no airborne pathogens can escape.
Cameras record everything, and everyone works in pairs.
You step into a larger shower room, about 4 feet square. Only after the entry door is locked will the door that leads into the laboratory unlock.
As in biosafety labs of any level, all work takes place inside vented cabinets from which no pathogen can escape. The lab is designed so that even if scientists are not wearing protective clothing, they should be perfectly safe. The inflated blue spacesuit is an extreme example of belt-and-suspenders precautions.
Such double and triple redundancies are everywhere. For example, any liquid waste from the lab is decontaminated and then poured down a double insulated pipe and into a “cook tank” where it is decontaminated again with pressure, high temperature, and chemicals. This, even though the lab will work only on viruses, which are easy to destroy.
You can only work here for a few hours at a time, because at some point you’ll need a “biobreak” to eat, drink, or go to the bathroom.
Not everyone can tolerate it. It’s hard to move around and easy to get dehydrated. You’re always tethered to that coiled hose and subject to its constant, loud hiss. You and your partner have to clean everything in the laboratory yourselves because the housekeeping staff isn’t allowed past the shower. If you have a heart attack, your partner is responsible for getting you out of there.
When it’s time to leave, you take off your boots and you enter the chemical shower. The door locks. It won’t open for eight minutes, as high-pressure nozzles along the walls spray a sterilizing brew. If for some reason they don’t work, you can pull a handle to activate a “deluge shower.”
Then you step back into the suit room, inspect the suit for leaks, and wash it off. In a small adjoining room, scrubs come off and are left to be autoclaved. Then you wash off in the smaller shower attached to the locker room.
Nothing that went into the lab is allowed to come out. Except your glasses. Which you also wash with soap and water.
Felice J. Freyer can be reached at email@example.com.