When I was pursuing my PhD in chemistry at Northwestern University, I regularly received emails from the Office for Research Safety reporting laboratory accidents. These alerts described biohazard spills, pressurized flasks shattering into pieces, and hot plates igniting fires. The emails provided guidance on how to prevent such incidents in the future and almost always included the statement, “Fortunately, no one was hurt.”
For much of my graduate school career, I thought about lab safety only in terms of these dramatic accidents, accepting the premise that as long as nothing exploded or burst into flames, no one was hurt. I didn’t think twice when working with chemicals. Chemicals were merely the liquified molecules from my textbooks; they were my companions through long nights of studying; they were the tools I relied upon to conduct my research. It never occurred to me that conducting reactions in the lab rather than on the page carried an added risk — not until an older graduate student made an offhand remark while we were chatting in the office one day. “I’m definitely closer to cancer and less fertile than I was before,” she said.
She had synthesized thousands of peptides during her time in the lab, requiring her to work with harsh chemicals such as dimethylformamide (DMF), which has been linked to liver damage, according to the CDC. “Some reports also suggest an increase in cancer among workers exposed to DMF, but the evidence is not conclusive at this time,” the CDC report stated. “The reproductive effects of DMF in humans have not been adequately studied.”
My research also required a fair amount of peptide synthesis, and I couldn’t help but feel that no one had adequately communicated the risk of working with these chemicals. I knew that we used fume hoods to prevent inhalation and wore gloves to protect against skin contact, but was this personal protective equipment enough? What was the CDC’s definition of exposure?
Even after this comment, I continued to dissolve amino acids in DMF and string them together, simply because I needed to complete the project. But I recognized that others may decide that characterizing the substrate specificity of an enzyme, adding a publication to their resume, or earning a PhD isn’t worth adverse health effects that could manifest later in life.
Scientific institutions should extend their approach to laboratory safety to include the cumulative consequences of daily research activities. Safety personnel should provide a database of chemicals with evidence of potential to cause cancer, fertility problems, and other forms of harm. More broadly, they should publicize the fact that the long-term effects of working regularly with many common laboratory chemicals are poorly understood. Doing so will encourage researchers to take every possible precaution when handling chemicals and allow them to make better informed decisions about the types of experiments they are willing to conduct. If scientists make any sacrifices for the sake of their research, they should do so voluntarily and fully aware of what they may be giving up.