Something you never want to hear in a lab
January 5, 2006 5:46 PM   Subscribe

Okay, so it was vaccinia -- the orthopoxvirus used to vaccinate against smallpox -- but still.
posted by docgonzo at 5:47 PM on January 5, 2006

She voluntarily declined vaccination before working with the stuff. Wow. That really doesn't seem too bright.
posted by selfmedicating at 5:51 PM on January 5, 2006

Nor did she wear eye protection. Also not too bright.
posted by fandango_matt at 5:52 PM on January 5, 2006

She went to her student health services , and they couldn't fix it ?
posted by R. Mutt at 5:52 PM on January 5, 2006

Staff infrequently wore eye protection while performing experiments with vaccinia. Laboratory coat sleeves were not elasticized and did not always cover the wrist. Waste pipettes were not disinfected before removal from the biosafety cabinet. Instances occurred in which samples with low titers of live virus were removed from the biosafety cabinet, transported to other parts of the facility, and manipulated. In addition, laboratory staff routinely vortexed tubes containing live virus outside of the biosafety cabinet. Most important, no laboratory workers had been vaccinated in the past 10 years, as recommended by CDC
Tsk, tsk, tsk. Bad laboratory practices. At least in high school biology they slapped us with eye protection the second we walked into the lab. Is it standard to get lax in research environments?
posted by geoff. at 5:53 PM on January 5, 2006

She declined vaccination, then was sloppy, then might have infected who knows how many folks, including pregnant contacts, etc. Stupid AND selfish. Not a great candidate for a future of messing with people's lives.
posted by onegreeneye at 5:58 PM on January 5, 2006

BTW, I would advise that you not "click to enlarge" figure #2.
posted by R. Mutt at 5:59 PM on January 5, 2006

I hope they let her get her name on the paper, at least. That's taking one for the team.
posted by bardic at 6:12 PM on January 5, 2006

This is why wearing eye protection in the lab is a good thing.
posted by rand at 6:27 PM on January 5, 2006

posted by Debaser626 at 6:28 PM on January 5, 2006

Is it standard to get lax in research environments?

I think so. I know quite a few people doing microbio research. The last time I visited my friend Eric in the lab we played with the liquid nitrogen and then threw about a gallon of it down the stairwell. (At night, when no one else was in the lab- we weren't risking anyone else's safety.)

Granted, that's not a typical example, but researchers working with biohazardous materials are just like everyone else- some of them get lax, lazy, and take shortcuts to save time. Except for most of us this doesn't endanger the health of ourselves and everyone around us.
posted by Meredith at 6:37 PM on January 5, 2006

Thanks, interesting link. I wonder what would have happened if she had a doctor who didn't ask about her job and the lab work. Misdiagnosis and outbreak, maybe?
posted by rolypolyman at 6:44 PM on January 5, 2006

Very cool link -- I love it when weird, random stuff like this pops up here.
posted by event at 6:49 PM on January 5, 2006

I hope they let her get her name on the paper, at least. That's taking one for the team.

Team, indeed. There are *ten* cited authors for this piece, which comes out at a little over 1,500 words!
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:58 PM on January 5, 2006

Hm, maybe I should stop storing my orthopoxvirus in the fridge in the butter dish. Come to think of it, I'm not convinced people didn't use it on bagels over the weekend.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:27 PM on January 5, 2006

as the biosafety officer for my company i can attest to the fact that it is difficult to get laboratory personnel to wear lab coats, never mind disposable gloves or goggles.
posted by brandz at 7:38 PM on January 5, 2006

brandz- I'm quite surprised to hear that. I work for a bio-tech company with raw materials that are assumed to be virus-free, and employees get fired very quickly for this kind of behavior. PPE is a number one priority.
posted by kamikazegopher at 7:43 PM on January 5, 2006

Is it standard to get lax in research environments?

It depends. A lot of research environments aren't hazardous. Sometimes the overzealous "enforcement" of strict laboratory safety practices in environments where they're absolute overkill does more harm than good since one gets used to ignoring the rules when they do end up working with something potentially hazardous instead of constantly assessing the current risk.

Still, the laboratory worker was working with a known biohazardous agent. No excuses for the laxity.

When I'm doing PCR, I'll usually eschew protection other than for gloves (which are to protect my sample rather than myself - if the occupational workplace safety people [who pays the insurance premiums] had their way, I'd have to be in a level 5 biohazard suit just to move bits of water from one tube to another). When I'm working with live human cytomegalovirus, an actual potential risk, I'll bust out the goggles, double bag my hands, and tape my cuffs, &c.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 7:48 PM on January 5, 2006

Oh - and if someone else in the lab/immediate environment are working with something hazardous (oh the horror stories of clumsy people and radioactive isotopes...), I will add additional PPE even if I'm just working on the computer.

No excused for the person who infected themselves.

posted by PurplePorpoise at 7:50 PM on January 5, 2006

kamikazegopher, it's a constant struggle to get these guys to wear PPE, especially the PhDs. everybody is trained and retrained. i work with one guy who still mouth-pipets. bad habits are hard to break.
posted by brandz at 7:51 PM on January 5, 2006

A lot of research environments aren't hazardous.

It's not just hazards -- my lab demands coats, gloves, etc. to cut down the risk of DNA contamination.

Mouth pipette? Shudder
posted by docgonzo at 7:57 PM on January 5, 2006

Mouth pipette? Shudder

Mouth pipet? Old school
posted by brandz at 8:07 PM on January 5, 2006

Two personal accidental virus infection stories:

1) A post-doc in a lab when I was in grad school mouth-pipetted (without a trap) a live sample of very high-titer Herpesvirus (HSV-1) and sucked up a mouthful. "Cold sores" is really an inadequate description of the resulting infection. She was on IV feeding for a while and was out of commission for months. She did get lead author on the paper though.

2) My family went to Europe when I was a kid. We had to get our immunizations updated in order to get visas. My younger sister hadn't had smallpox vaccination yet (the rest of us had) as it was being phased out in this country but it was required for travel. So she got the scratch-the-upper-arm vaccination and was told not to get it wet for a couple of days. She ignored the advice and went swimming. She got a huge growth at the vaccination site that spread to a mosquito bite she had on her shoulder and then to a cut she had on her forearm. The growths were roughly orange sized (and this on a seven-year-old girl) and took about two weeks to subside, leaving scars at all three locations.
posted by TimeFactor at 8:43 PM on January 5, 2006

It's worth repeating that this wasn't smallpox, it was orthopoxvirus, which doesn't kill people.

Still, it's hard to understand how this could have happened in a laboratory setting. She should have been working to BSL-2 standards and she clearly wasn't. The student, and more importantly her supervisor, were both cutting corners and she got bit. Fortunately for her the consequences weren't severe. Dumb but lucky.

The conclusion is that unvaccinated workers handling similar pox viruses should be at BSL-3, which means that an undergraduate would never be allowed near the stuff. I'm sure that lab will lose it's certification too. That's $100k if not $1M expensive.
posted by bonehead at 8:44 PM on January 5, 2006

brandz, around my lab, that would get you kicked to the curb. We've let people go because of safety concerns.
posted by bonehead at 8:45 PM on January 5, 2006

Was there a Graduate Supervisor in that lab named Dr. Randal Flagg? Because I think I know what happens next.

[he types as he packs bags, ammo, and supplies for secluded mountain cabin]
posted by tkchrist at 8:49 PM on January 5, 2006

BTW, I've mouth-pipetted live virus (and all sorts of other distasteful if not dangerous stuff like human tissue culture cells) hundreds of times but always with a trap - a flask that goes between the business end of the pipette and the mouth piece so if you suck too hard it goes in the flask. This was standard practice when I was in grad school. There were automated micropipettes for very small volumes (i.e. microliter quantities) that were very accurate that we used all the time. For larger volumes there was nothing available that was nearly as accurate as a mouth-pipette for quickly transferring samples.
posted by TimeFactor at 8:57 PM on January 5, 2006

What is this. a gore site now?
posted by HTuttle at 9:20 PM on January 5, 2006

What is mouth-pipetting?
posted by srboisvert at 12:59 AM on January 6, 2006

Ever heard of a peleusball???
It's a rubber ball that you squeeze to build up a little low pressure within and then put on top of your pipette. There are three squeeze valves, marked "S" (suction, draws liquid up), "E" (empty, releases liquid slowly) and "A" (lets air back into the ball from the outside so that it can be stored in non-compressed form; or to release all liquid from the pipette quickly). Admittedly, I never worked with hazardous bacterial cultures, but the thought of trying to suck smoking sulfuric acid through what's basically a straw didn't hold a high appeal for me, either. Why do people do this?
posted by PontifexPrimus at 2:50 AM on January 6, 2006

What is mouth-pipetting?

A pipette is essentially a glass tube used to measure out precise quantities of a liquid. The liquid is drawn into the pipette by suction. Standard practise is to use some form of rubber bulb or similar mechanical device to draw the liquid into the pipette.

Alternatively you can just put your lips around the end of the pipette and suck. This is known as mouth pipetting and is a pretty stupid practice as if you suck too much the liquid will end up in your mouth, easy to do if the volume of the pipette is only a few ml.
posted by bap98189 at 3:08 AM on January 6, 2006

There could be a whole Web site dedicated to hot scientists mouth pipetting.

Although, when I worked at one of the pharmacology labs at the Unviersity of Minnesota (cleaning pipettes, by the way), hot scientists were not exactly superabundant.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:15 AM on January 6, 2006

Peleus balls work okay, but as they age they get less elastic (plasticiser leaches out of them or something) and thus less precise. Mouth pipetting really is the most precise way to move quantities of liquid in the 1-20ml range, especially as it leaves your hands free ... except it's also the most hazardous.

Hmm. Wonder if there'd be a market for a hybrid device? With a mouthpiece, but a membrane separating the air chamber you suck on from the pipette itself, so that there's no path for fluid or gaseous material to flow into your mouth?
posted by cstross at 3:41 AM on January 6, 2006

I was taught to mouth pipette in chem in college. By an instructor who was blind in one eye and had a collapsed lung. From lab accidents.
posted by deep_cover at 4:36 AM on January 6, 2006

Mouth pipetting really is the most precise way to move quantities of liquid in the 1-20ml range

I'll use one of these, thanks!
posted by purplemonkie at 4:53 AM on January 6, 2006

Mouth-pipetting is (or was) safe with a trap: the pipette drains into to a flask with rubber tubing and the flask is attached to your mouthpiece by a separate piece of rubber tubing. If you suck too hard everything goes into the flask, not your mouth. It takes more skill to pipette this way because there is a much greater volume of air in the system but it does make it essentially impossible to suck in hazardous material.

purplemonkie: when I was last doing this stuff many years ago we used pipet-aids only when we didn't need precise volume measurement, e.g. when washing tissue cultures, and mouth-pipettes when accuracy was required. I assume pipet-aids have since become more accurate.
posted by TimeFactor at 5:09 AM on January 6, 2006

TimeFactor: yeah, it seems that there has been substantial improvement in pipet aid accuracy over the years. Mouth pipetting is extremely rare nowadays; in fact, it's been forbidden in every lab I've worked in, even for harmless substances.
posted by purplemonkie at 5:58 AM on January 6, 2006

Mouth pipetting really is the most precise way to move quantities of liquid in the 1-20ml range...

I echo the WTF? here. There are any number of dispenser systems that are as quantitative as a pipette and don't end up killing you from lung or liver or kidney failure. Manual glass pipettes are seriously outdated, there are better ways of moving liquids around in every case I've ever run across.

Seriously, anyone pulling that shit in one of our labs would be put on warning right away. We don't need the liability headaches.
posted by bonehead at 7:11 AM on January 6, 2006

Yeah, I've just had a look through one of our catalogues: Cole-Parmer sell fixed-volume eppindorf-types (+/- 0.3%) up to 50 mL at about $125 per, and variable volume ones up to 20 mL (+/- 0.1%) up to 20mL for not much more. That's in just a couple of minutes. Why the heck would anyone want to risk their health with a glass bulb and a cranky bit of rubber if these are available?
posted by bonehead at 7:21 AM on January 6, 2006

Mouth pipetting is totally OUT. If you don't nose pipette these days, you're nobody.
posted by shoos at 8:38 AM on January 6, 2006

mouth pipetting seems to me like sending anthrax letters and licking the envelopes to seal them...
posted by qvantamon at 8:59 AM on January 6, 2006

Still, it's hard to understand how this could have happened in a laboratory setting.

good lord. do you know *anybody* who works in bio labs? these are the slackest places on the planet.
posted by 3.2.3 at 11:44 AM on January 6, 2006

do you know *anybody* who works in bio labs?

As a matter of fact, I do. We do toxicology work with academic and (Canadian) national labs. I've never seen anything remotely like the behaviour described above. Remember, this isn't some lab working with a vegetative species, this is a BSL-2 organism. The people I know working in high(er)-hazard labs are pretty darn careful.
posted by bonehead at 12:36 PM on January 6, 2006

Crikey, it sounds like most everyone in that lab wants to be on Darwin's shortlist. WTF, not getting a vaccination? GAH!
posted by five fresh fish at 6:21 PM on January 6, 2006

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