Let me start by saying that I don’t mean to be sensationalist. I really don’t. But current events really have my blood boiling. All of us, and I mean each and every one of us that works at the bench, have taken tons of courses in lab safety and are probably sick and tired of the annual boreathon that is called safety training day (or whatever it is called in your institution). No, I don’t wear open-toed sandals in the lab. I don’t pipette by mouth. I file each and every MSDS sheet in our safety binder when the materials arrive (OK…I don’t really do this one). So yeah, I think that I am a pretty safe guy. And so are most of the people that I work with. But WHAT THE HECK??? ANTHRAX???
If you haven’t heard the news, last Thursday, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a statement informing the public that as many as 75 scientists may have been exposed to live Anthrax while working in their Atlanta facility. 75 scientists! Anthrax! Just the sound of it makes my skin crawl. The lab can often be monotonous and boring, but surely this isn’t the way anyone wants to break up the monotony of bench work. Imagine the scenario. You wake up one morning, pack your lunch, kiss your wife and kids goodbye and head off to work. You figure that you’ve got a good 8 or 9 hours ahead of you in the lab and then its back home. Only nope. Someone has something else planned for you. You are about to be exposed to anthrax.
While the exposure was not intentional, (staff in a high-level biosecurity lab working with the live virus forgot to inactivate it before passing it on to colleagues who were untrained in handling of the bacteria), the carelessness and negligence exhibited by the scientific staff at the CDC is just as worrisome. However, do you think that these kind of mishaps can only occur at high-level biosecurity facilities? I think not.
Although the use of radioisotopes is not as common as it used to be, I remember how, as a graduate student, neighboring labs were shut down when they failed to pass the radioactivity officer inspection. Apparently, swipe tests showed that hot stuff was all over the place! Unsuspecting passersby were unintentionally exposed to huge levels of beta particle radiation.
And what about the widespread use of ethidium bromide for detecting DNA in gels? Sure, the person handling the stained gel was wearing gloves, but did he bother taking off the gloves when touching the door handle to the dark room or gel doc imager? Did he unintentionally contaminate the common computer keyboard? The list goes on and on.
So while I don’t want to be a sensationalist and blow things out of proportion, I do believe that the occupational hazards associated with lab work are probably higher than your average desk job worker. I would be interested in seeing a long-term, epidemiological study of morbidity and mortality rates among those who worked in a research lab for a significant period of time.