Prepared by: Scott Rusk, associate director for operations at the Biosecurity Research Institute,
Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2007
OP-ED: BIOCONTAINMENT LABS MAKE AMERICA SAFER
Earlier this fall, the media began following laboratory safety issues and Congressional-level hearings related to the oversight of a growing number of biocontainment laboratories in the U.S. The reports may have generated undo concern for people who are not aware of exactly how safe modern biocontainment laboratories are. It is important to communicate the facts about laboratory safety and proper management in modern facilities.
The U.S. needs more biocontainment labs because it lacks the ability to rapidly and effectively safeguard public health and the agricultural economy against disease. Some concern has been expressed, however, that as the number of labs rises, so too does the risk to the public and lab workers. When considering the safeguards built into such facilities and the benefits to come from research, the opposite is quite true.
Laboratories designed to aid in the discovery of ways to diagnose, treat and prevent disease have biosafety level designations of 1 through 4. The lower the number, the fewer safety precautions required in the way the lab is designed and built. The higher the number, the more numerous the operational safety features are. In all cases, the safety of the people working in the facility and the surrounding environment is paramount.
The fundamental guiding principle for operating and managing biocontainment facilities is the constant assessment of risk, followed by implementing practices to bring those risks down to an acceptable level. The process of risk assessment takes place every day in all walks of life and in many work environments. For example, driving a car to work has risks. Just like use of seatbelts reduces the risk of injury in a car accident, safety practices, equipment, training and awareness make doing research in a high-level lab safe.
Biocontainment facilities are designed, constructed and operated using universally accepted standards, guidelines and strategies to minimize risk, allowing safe research to take place. Kansas State University's Biosecurity Research Institute was designed with these standards in mind, as well as the latest technology available. This facility is undergoing extensive testing, evaluation and validation to ensure it is safe and reliable. The very same standards will be followed when the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility is built -- and with just as much diligence.
Laboratory safety has come a long way and will continue to improve with increasing knowledge and advances in safety procedures and equipment. Prior to the 1970s, laboratory accidents resulting in infection were much more frequent. Much of what we know today comes from lessons learned in the past. From those lessons, universal laboratory biosafety standards and practices have been established by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1984, those agencies published a manual called "Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories (BMBL)." From the time of that first BMBL publication to the latest edition this year, much has changed to make laboratories even more safe and secure. A significant collection of laws also exists that regulate work with specific diseases designed to protect the environment and to ensure workplace safety.
Can laboratory accidents occur that expose workers? Can events happen that result in the release of infectious material into the environment? These things are highly unlikely, but not impossible. That's why biocontainment facilities are designed and built the way they are. When such facilities are married to proper management, training, policies, protocols and emergency response programs, multiple layers of redundancy are created. The effect is a greatly reduced probability that an adverse event will happen.
Individuals accept risks for a variety of reasons, but typically people weigh the benefits of a decision compared with an adverse outcome. There is no such thing as zero risk. Doing nothing to research agricultural and human disease in the face of ever-increasing threats puts us all at risk and is not the right approach. We must continue learning about diseases that affect us, discover new ways to improve human health and ensure that the U.S. has reliable and safe food sources.
Those of us who work in laboratories as professionals understand the need to work safely. As associate director of the Biosecurity Research Institute at K-State, my job is to ensure that people are safe and that quality research is able to take place at the facility. Safety on all fronts is not only a personal philosophy, but part of the Biosecurity Research Institute's culture that is shared by all staff.