Scientists demand diligence from laboratory workers

Saturday, March 12, 2011 | 6:43 p.m. CST

ST. LOUIS — More than 500,000 people work in laboratories across the United States, and scientists say it is vital to take steps to protect themselves from the diseases they are studying.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that occupational health hazards for scientists and other lab workers include infectious diseases spread by live viruses and bacteria.

Estimates are that three of every 1,000 lab workers become infected each year. The most common infections include hepatitis, typhoid fever and tuberculosis, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Saint Louis University houses the region's only level-three bio-safety lab, which means the labs are involved in the study of biological agents that can be transmitted through the air. The SLU labs are inspected by federal agents, and workers must undergo background checks. The labs require specialty ventilation and other security protections.

"The bottom line is we want to be very thorough and meticulous to make sure we keep our lab workers safe and the community safe," said Mark Campbell, SLU's biological safety officer.

"If there's no exposure, then there's no disease," he said.

Still, mistakes happen. Last year, a University of Illinois student worker contracted cowpox in a campus lab that stores the virus. The student recovered.

University of Chicago professor Malcolm Casadaban, 60, died after catching the plague in a lab in 2009, a death that shook the disease research community. A new report indicates that Casadaban had a genetic condition that may have made him more vulnerable to the plague.

Casadaban's co-workers in the lab, family members and other close contacts were given antibiotics as a precaution. No other cases of plague were linked to the lab.

The death was a reminder to scientists. They wear gloves, coats and eye goggles. Biological safety cabinets keep fumes away from researchers if they need to mix agents. But infections can occur when workers breathe in or touch spores.

"We've always told people they need to follow safety (precautions) even if what they think they're working with is benign," said Susan Cook, a safety officer at Washington University, where scientists work with cultures including flu, pneumonia, salmonella and E. coli. "You don't necessarily know what the person next to you is working with all the time."

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