The unremarkable, plain-as-vanilla exterior of Building 91E, part of the IIT Institute for Food Safety and Health (IFSH) on Moffett Campus in Bedford Park, Ill., belies the intensity of the activity taking place inside this one-of-a-kind facility.
The building’s first floor features the unique Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) Biocontainment Pilot Plant. With its companion BSL-3 Laboratory, the combined facility is specifically designed to study the behavior of pathogens in real-world food-processing conditions. The pilot plant can handle large volumes of hazardous agents affecting mainly produce and is outfitted with a room-sized flume for washing fruits and vegetables. It can also accommodate special equipment, such as an extruder for raw materials testing.
The building’s second floor is equally noteworthy.
“You know how big the furnace room is in your house?” asks Biosafety Officer Margaret Juergensmeyer. “Imagine if your furnace room had the same square footage as your house. That’s what it takes to maintain a BSL-3 facility.”
A complex resembling a silver-colored city populated by pipes, pumps, and pressure monitors, the mechanical room, according to Juergensmeyer, “is where all the magic happens that you don’t see when you’re downstairs.” In addition to regulating heating and air conditioning for the building, the upper floor’s many devices ensure that the laboratory maintains negative air pressure relative to surrounding rooms, so that air flows in only one direction—from clean to dirty. Air released from the building is purified there via a bank of giant HEPA filters. And if a door on the first floor is left open too long, the Building Automation System will kick in to counterbalance the disturbance in air pressure. The mechanicals also make possible the containment necessary for the building’s BSL-3 status.
“Containment is the focus of the entire building,” says Juergensmeyer. “Anything—people, equipment, water, air—that comes into the building is cleaned and decontaminated before it goes out. It’s layer upon layer upon layer of safety.”