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AIDS Seen As Job Hazard In Some Labs

Washington-Becoming infected with the AIDS virus is an occupational hazard facing laboratory workers who handle highly concentrated preparations of the virus, according to a study published in the January 1 issue of Science. To minirnize what they call a “very low” risk of infection, the authors urge a review of federal safety guidelines and increased vigilance in following prescribed safety procedures. WASHINGTON—A monthly science magazine that was shut down by the feder

By | January 25, 1988

Washington-Becoming infected with the AIDS virus is an occupational hazard facing laboratory workers who handle highly concentrated preparations of the virus, according to a study published in the January 1 issue of Science. To minirnize what they call a “very low” risk of infection, the authors urge a review of federal safety guidelines and increased vigilance in following prescribed safety procedures.

WASHINGTON—A monthly science magazine that was shut down by the federal government has been reborn under a new name.

21st Century Science and Technology is scheduled to appear on newsstands this month as the successor to Fusion magazine, a monthly publication on fusion energy with close ties to political activist Lyndon LaRouche. The offices and bank accounts of Fusion were seized last April by U.S. marshals in connection with a federal indictment for credit card fraud brought against various organizations operated by LaRouche and his supporters.

"The contents will be exactly like Fusion,” said Merge Hecht, managing editor of both publications. Added editor-in-chief Carol White, “Other magazines tell you about the impossibility of progress because of the limits to growth and finite resources. 21st Century will document the possibility of progress and man’s unique capacity to create new resources.”

The first issue, dated March/ April, features a cover story on travel to Mars using fusion propulsion and articles on space farming and the biological and political implications of radio frequency weapons. Subscriptions to the bi-monthly, 64-page magazine are $20 for six issues, and checks can be sent to P.O. Box 65473, Washington, D.C. 20035.

The recommendations are based on finding evidence of the AIDS virus in one worker during a 265-person, two-year study, even though the worker appeared to have followed standard safety precautions. “In retrospect, we found that some things could have been done differently,” said Stanley H. Weiss, an epidemiologist at the New Jersey Medical School and lead author of the report.

For example, two infected workers did not routinely wear double gloves to guard against undetected skin exposure. “While that’s not .a violation of the rules, our report indicates it is a violation of what the best practice dictates,” Weiss explained. Specific guidelines involving protective clothing as well operational procedures should be laid out in “exorbitant detail" he added.

The current federal guidelines for working with the AIDS virus, plus a report from a second investigation that examined the safety of facilities, will be published soon as a supplement to Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. But the government will not issue new recommendations, such as when to wear double gloves or masks, according to Robert McKinney, director of NIH’s Division of Safety.

We are trying to convey to supervisors and managers the importance of proper training, not to dictate specific procedures,” McKinney said. “We don’t know all the pluses and minuses of following certain procedures."

W. Emmett Barkley, director of NIH’s Division of Engineering Services and a co-author of the Science report, said that while federal guidelines do not need to be changed, the MMWR supplement will incorporate some of the Weiss study’s recommendations. ‘The impact of wearing protective gloves, for example, will be emphasized. However, double gloving won’t be recommended because many people assume it means double protection." Weiss questioned the government’s reluctance to revise some of its recommended guidelines.

It is reasonable to avoid an official stamp of a government policy telling people what basic procedures they must follow,” he said, “But we must get this information to the people who need it. I guess the philosophy is to let individual biosafety committees come to their own conclusions.”

The risk of infection among lab workers is determined by evaluating such factors as the concentration of the virus, frequency of work with it, training and experience of the worker and type of facility.

The second study, conducted last fall by biosafety experts from NIH, the Centers for Disease Control and other agencies, concluded that Biosafety Level 3 was appropriate for handling concentrated virus.

Level 5 facilities are designed to handle those agents in which aerosol is a known mode of transmission. The biosafety team evaluated containment, equipment and operating procedures and found no evidence of aerosol transmission, McKinney said. But he said aerosol transmission cannot be ruled out until tests are conducted on a suitable animal model. In the meantime, he said, NIH is preparing to look at the stability of the AIDS virus when aerosolized in vitro.

"The [Biosafety team's] findings told us that the problem of lab workers becoming infected is not a facilities issue but a technique issue within the safety guidelines,” Weiss said. “Moving from one biosafety level to another just doesn’t help all that much when proper procedures are not followed.”

The Weiss study also reported that another worker became infected, apparently after being cut in the hand by a contaminated needle. It recommended that all laboratories review their biosafety containment policies and make sure that workers follow proper precautions. Important procedures include avoiding sharp instruments, wearing gloves when handling materials containing the virus, removing gloves after contact with potential contaminants, and avoiding hand contact with mouth, eyes, ears and nose. The report also recommended that workers with skin conditions on the hands or wrists avoid any procedure involving the transfer of concentrated virus. It also proposed routine but not mandatory blood testing of all AIDS lab workers.

McDonald is on the staff of THE SCIENTIST.


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(The Scientist, Vol:2, #2, p.1, January 25, 1988)
(Copyright © The Scientist, Inc.)

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