EtBr safety procedures

Jim Owens jow at
Fri Jun 11 09:56:46 EST 1993

In article <1993Jun11.094742.15386 at> BLC,
GBGA13 at VMS3.GLASGOW.AC.UK writes:
>The tenor of this recent discussion, leading to downgrading of 
>the potential risk of EtBr is disturbing and I wish to remind 
>contributors that we owe a duty of care, not only to ourselves 
>and our students but also to people who come into contact with 
>our work without having made the explicit (or implicit) 
>Mephistophelian bargain to accept some personal risks in the 
>pursuit of science.  Think of the cleaners, for example, in your 

Bernard and Robin,

You have touched on an issue which has bothered me for many years.  I
have noted in my  group here at NIH a growing disregard for safety
regulations.  Not just in regard to ethidium bromide, but also in
handling of radioactive materials and biohazardous waste.  Frequently,
unsafe practices are justified on the grounds that only the violator
would be harmed if something went wrong, for example, failure to wear lab
coats and film badges while working with 32-P.  Conditions in our
radioisotope room are so bad, that the cleaning people have not been
allowed to do routine cleaning of the room since 1986 when our
"responsible" investigator decided he could not enforce the radiation
safety rules.  Every once in a while, the room is cleaned up by the few
responsible users so that the tile floor can be stripped and waxed.

We have a Biosafety Level 2 room with similar problems, mostly due to
users not cleaning up after themselves.  Both this room and the radiation
room are routinely very warm, making it uncomfortable to wear labcoats. 
Yet, the powers that be - lab chief and section chiefs - have not
requested the installation of supplementary cooling except in their own
offices.  In fact, an air conditioner was removed from the Biosafety
Level 2 room to cool the office of the section chief "in charge" of it!  

It seems to be a function of overcrowding.  Too many people from our lab
of 50 workers use the common facilities.  The people nominally in charge
rarely, if ever, work in the rooms so they tend to overlook the
violations of their own rules.  It is too much trouble to track down the
unknown offenders.  Not Me and Ida Know seem to be our worst offenders. 
When I objected, it was too much trouble for the "responsible" person to
enforce the rules so I was asked to do it.  When I did, the offender
complained to the "responsible" person who backed them up, because "You
don't expect me to tell them they can't use the room."

It worries me that our people's attitude is that the regulations for
hazardous materials are stumbling blocks on the road to scientific
progress.  When they are ignored or violated I am afraid that if someday
the violations are discovered my coworkers response will be in public as
they have been in private: we are scientists and we know the risks we are
running better than the bureaucratic rulemakers.  This virus construct
can't possibly harm anyone, therfore, the rules are irrational and can be
ignored.  (We had one researcher whose violation of biosafety regulations
was discovered when the manuscript was reviewed by our division director.
 This time it was ignorance of the rules rather than ignoring them, but
the reason was the construct was considered safe by the worker and so the
idea that working with it required special permission never occurred.) 
If that happens, taxpayer support of science erode further than it has

Jim Owens
I speak for myself, and not for my bosses, obviously.

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