| Lab 257:
The Disturbing Story of the Government's Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory
By Michael Christopher Carroll
Published by William Morrow
February 2004; 006078184X; 320 pages
1975: The Lyme Connection
Have you ever heard of Lyme disease? I am writing this letter because I know you can help thousands of people by warning them about this awful sickness. I have been battling it for 18 months. Frankly I am not doing well.
It would be impossible for me to describe the emotional and physical pain that I have been through. I am a 42-year-old man, married nearly 20 years, and have a family. The days of slinging a 100-pound sack of bird-seed over my shoulder and walking to the backyard are over.
Today I can't even lift a five-pound sack of flour. There was a time when I could play nine musical instruments. I sang in the church choir and ran my own small business. Today, I do none of the above. I am saving all my energy to fight Lyme disease.
The treatment costs are staggering. IV antibiotic therapy runs from $150 to $475 a treatment ... We have already taken out a third mortgage on our home. Had I been aware of the symptoms from the beginning, I could have had $15 worth of oral antibiotics and that would have done the job.
Thank you, Ann, for allowing me to try to help others.
--S.J.N., Mattituck, N.Y.
Protecting a nuclear power plant is no small task. When it opened in the 1980s, the Shoreham nuclear power plant on Long Island's North Shore boasted a 175-man militia equipped with Uzi 9-millimeters, AR-15 assault rifles, and 12-gauge shotguns. This elite paramilitary unit patrolled the "protected area," a dense forest hundreds of acres deep that buffered the "controlled area," a huge concrete dome sheltering the uranium nuclear reactor. Every eight hours, a fresh detachment of fifty men, armed to the teeth and clad in steel-toed boots, tan pants, and khaki shirts, marched in lockstep through the protected area along dirt paths and through marshes, their watchful eyes and ears continually scanning for intruders. One Shoreham security officer, a short, blond-bearded, barrel-chested man, remembers the scene during the 3:00 P.M. to 11:00 P.M. shift in October 1987. His platoon had just moved out, marching into a field where they often spotted herds of thirty or forty wild deer darting ahead of them into the wooded glen. He felt a brief pinch on his left ankle and thought it was the stiff new Army boots he was breaking in. Later that night, he went home and showered. Pulling off his white tube socks, he noticed a small red mark on his ankle. Those damn boots , he thought, and went to bed.
When he awoke the next morning, the nagging blister had grown, so he grabbed tweezers from the bathroom vanity and poked at the area. Suddenly, something started to move, and he realized it wasn't a blister at all. It was a live bug. Panicked, he frantically dug into it. As he extracted the critter, it broke in two, spilling its insides into the microscopic holes it punched into his body.
Seventy-two hours later, he thought he had caught the flu. Within a week, his joints began to ache.
Most people don't think of deer as swimmers. But swim they do. Indigenous to most of the United States and Canada, white-tailed deer can swim distances as long as four miles.
Their natural predators -- wolf, bear, mountain lion, and coyote -- are long extinct from the northeastern landscape, but one tiny foe remains. Poised atop a blade of grass, the deer tick waits patiently for anything warm-blooded to brush by, feeding on deer as well as smaller creatures like birds and mice. The tick jumps aboard and pierces its sharp mouth hooks into the skin of its unlucky host. A tiny glutton with a king-sized appetite, the tick sucks the blood of its host in a feast that can last up to two whole days, while it swells to a bubble over three times its original size. At the same time, the little parasite deposits its own fluids into the host, fluids that sometimes prove fatal.
The feeding habits of ticks and the swimming abilities of deer were of little concern to the residents of Old Lyme, Connecticut, in July 1975. This quaint New England town is, for the most part, an upper-crust community with tree-lined streets and fine colonial and Federal-style homes. As one of America's oldest towns, founded by English Puritans, Old Lyme was enjoying its tricentennial as the nation prepared for a bicentennial. But a strange set of occurrences that year would forever change its reputation from a warm, charming enclave to a place of fear and despair.
Old Lyme, nestled on the banks of the Connecticut River, sits just a shade north of the Long Island Sound. The midsummer weather in 1975 was typical for coastal Connecticut -- hot, sticky, and humid. As little ones frolicked in the sun, ignoring the blistering heat, and grown-ups sought refuge on their porches by night, grateful for a balmy summer breeze, Polly Murray and Judith Mensch noticed something unusual about their children. Seemingly out of nowhere, they were showing signs of strange physical and mental ailments. Alarmed, the two mothers quickly phoned their neighbors, who were observing strikingly similar conditions in their own children. Many of the kids in the neighborhood -- and some adults -- were suffering from the same skin rashes, throbbing headaches, and painful swollen joints.
Together, Polly and Judith brought their concerns to the Connecticut Department of Health, which immediately appointed physicians from Yale University to investigate. Initially, the doctors misdiagnosed thirty-nine children and twelve adults with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, a condition they named "Lyme arthritis," after the town where the strange outbreak occurred. Two years later, scientists linked Lyme arthritis to the bite of a deer tick. And in 1981, Dr. Wally Burgdorfer, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, discovered a thin spiral bacteria -- in technical terms, a spirochete -- immersed in the fluid of a deer tick. He proved that the new spirochete was to blame -- not for a Lyme arthritis, but for an entirely new ailment: Lyme disease.
Nestled near the Hamptons, the fashionable summer playground of America's rich and famous, and in the shadow of New York City, lies an unimposing 840-acre island unidentified on most maps. On the few on which it can be found, Plum Island is marked red or yellow, and stamped U.S. government-restricted or dangerous animal diseases. Though many people live the good life within a scant mile or two from its shores, few know the name of this pork chop-shaped island. Even fewer can say whether it is inhabited, or why it doesn't exist on the map. That's all about to change.
Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government's Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory blows the lid off the stunning true nature and checkered history of Plum Island. It shows that the seemingly bucolic island on the edge of the largest population center in the United States is a ticking biological time bomb that none of us can safely ignore.
Based on innumerable declassified government documents, scores of in-depth interviews, and access to Plum Island itself, this is an eye-opening, suspenseful account of a federal government germ laboratory gone terribly wrong. For the first time, Lab 257 takes you deep inside this secret world and presents startling revelations including virus outbreaks, biological meltdowns, infected workers who were denied assistance in diagnosis by Plum Island brass, the periodic flushing of contaminated raw sewage into area waters, and the insidious connections between Plum Island, Lyme disease, and the deadly 1999 West Nile virus outbreak.
An exploration of the complex world of microbiology, viruses, and bacteria, Lab 257 also shows how the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which ran Plum Island for the last half century, is far more than wholesome grade-A eggs and the food pyramid. The book probes what's in store for Plum Island's new owner, the Department of Homeland Security, in this age of bioterrorism. And for those interested in questions of national security and safety, it is a call to action for those concerned with protecting present and future generations from preventable biological catastrophes.
Lab 257 will change forever our current understanding of Plum Island -- a place that is, in the words of one insider, "a biological Three Mile Island."(back to top)
Michael C. Carroll 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.