Science & Technology

A Top-Secret Disease Research Center in Long Island Has Been Mired in Conspiracy Theories for Decades

There are a lot of conspiracy theories surrounding Plum Island Animal Disease Center, but that's what you'd expect of a secret government facility mutating deadly diseases just 15 miles off the coast of Long Island. Of course, most of that is just talk — except there is the little matter of the top-secret bioweapons research.

Military Origins

The military base on Plum Island dates back to 1897 — long before the virologists moved in. But in 1952, the U.S. Army Chemical Corps established a bioweapons development program there (a fact the government would conceal for many decades). The purpose of these artificially enhanced viruses developed during this time was not to target an enemy's army or civilian population, but instead its livestock. This research continued after the complex was passed off from the military to civilian hands in 1954, ending only in 1969 and kept a secret until 1993. But if you do read one of the many conspiracy theories surrounding PIADC, you're sure to hear mention of Building 257, the now-abandoned lab where much of the bioweapon research took place.

Recipe for Paranoia

You can't blame the locals on Long Island for fearing the research center. Besides the weapons programs, Plum Island has to maintain high-security protocols to prevent any of the diseases from escaping to the mainland. That doesn't exactly help earn anybody's trust. Then there's the fact that many of the buildings on the island are abandoned. Super creepy. And to top it all off, the center's stated purpose is to mutate bovine diseases in order to learn everything we can about them. Hello? Hasn't anyone ever seen a zombie movie?

Probably the most high profile instance of a conspiracy surrounding PIADC came in 2008 with the discovery of the "Montauk monster." A small creature washed ashore on the beach at nearby Montauk, causing a flurry of speculation that the center was developing strange, genetically modified creatures. It was grayish pink and nearly hairless, with sharp teeth and a beak-like snout — but experts soon determined it was likely a raccoon that had bloated in the seawater and partially decayed away. Other conspiracy theories go further, alleging that the center has been the epicenter of numerous outbreaks, including West Nile Virus. However, PIADC has not researched anything that could be transferred to humans since the 1960s.

The Real Goal: Saving Hamburgers

According to employee John Verrico, "The reason why we're here is to keep hamburgers from being $100 apiece." That's because the vast majority of the research done on Plum Island these days is on foot-and-mouth disease, which can devastate a herd of pigs or cattle but cannot infect human beings. Even so, they take incredible precautions to ensure nothing dangerous makes it back to the mainland. Researchers must disrobe and wear plastic garments in certain parts of the facility. They need to take decontamination showers before donning their "street clothes" again. And finally, the center's security forces have orders to shoot any mammal on the island on the off chance that it contracts a disease and returns to the mainland. So put your worries aside — nothing is getting off this island that PDIAC doesn't know about.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas March 31, 2017

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