ORONO — The concept of biosecurity has moved to the mainstream, as threats from pests and disease spread through international travel are seen and more clearly understood.

At the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service’s Insect and Plant Disease Diagnostic Lab, scientists tasked with diagnosing and monitoring diseases and pests that can affect plant, animal and, often, human health worry about being up to the challenge. This is because current facilities are insecure, outdated, too small, located in high-traffic pedestrian areas, and can’t keep up with demand.

On Nov. 4, voters will be asked to approve an $8 million bond issue to build a new animal and plant disease and insect control laboratory. The proposed, state-of-the-art, 18,000-square-foot building would be sited away from the high-traffic University of Maine campus and would be equipped with high biosecurity zones, separate testing and research areas, an attached greenhouse, a large animal autopsy room and secure disposal of infectious waste.

The existing lab, comprising two facilities dating back to the 1940s and 1970s, has played a vital role in monitoring and diagnosing pests, pathogens and invasive species that pose a threat to human health and the state’s agricultural industry and wildlife population, said John Rebar, UMaine Cooperative Extension executive director.

“As a state with a large international border, thousands of miles of coastlines, and people and goods coming to Maine ports every day, the threat of disease and invasive species is increasing annually,” he said. “This threat can destroy crops, kill or injure livestock and pose a threat to public health.”

Some of the threats include:

“We’ve done what we can to make [the existing facility] as secure as possible,” said Anne Lichtenwalner, director of the Animal Health Laboratory. “We’ve reworked some of the doors so they’re sealed and the entrance is controlled. We’ve implemented all kinds of safety steps with regard to containment of samples and how samples are handled and disposed of within the building. And we wear protective gear to contain anything that might be a pathogen.”

But the proposed facility, Lichtenwalner explained, “would be separate from other busy areas. We would have a separate area for vehicles to back into that would be contained, so they can offload plant and animal specimens suspected of being diseased into a secure area not adjacent to classrooms and hallways. Immediately adjacent to the area where the infected materials are inspected and where we do diagnostics work, we would have an alkaline digester to dispose of contaminated materials onsite.”

Building construction is estimated at $5.4 million, with the rest going into modern equipment.

Right now, said, Rebar, “We’re very limited in what we can do.”