The Federal Select Agent Program conducted their first ever annual report, discovering 199 instances where lab technicians were inadvertently exposed to toxic or infectious substances last year. Luckily, all of these were near misses. Yet they do unearth a need for continued education and high standards when it comes to the handling and removal of samples from laboratories across the nation.
The Federal Select Agent Program is responsible for overseeing dangerous substances that are studied inside of federal, state, private and academic labs. These substances include things like the bird flu, Ebola virus and even anthrax. New regulations were issued to the agency in 2014, resulting in an overall inspection of the handling of certain dangerous elements. It was during this inspection that agents found 199 cases where a lab worker was a breath away from becoming infected with a potentially deadly agent.
The safe handling of certain dangerous agents has been a focus ever since it was reported by the CDC that several labs had mishandled dangerous pathogens in the past, putting the entire surrounding population at serious risk of mass infection. As a result, the CDC, Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture are now working jointly on a task force that works solely to monitor these labs and their medical waste disposal procedures among other things.
In total, there were 12 potential losses uncovered, and a total of 233 potential releases of toxic agents. When investigated further, it was found that all of the potential losses could be traced to either a clerical error or of samples being destroyed in an autoclave by mistake. Medical waste disposal for laboratories has to include education on which types of agents are acceptable for that type of destruction. With some toxins, the autoclave will actually release harmful gases, putting the lab worker at risk of infection when the mechanism is opened.
As for the 233 potential releases of a toxic agent, there were 199 instances in which a lab technician may have been exposed by error. This included an instance where viable Anthrax had mistakenly left a military base and was sent to a number of outside laboratories both in the US and abroad. Luckily, none of these potential releases resulted in illness, death or the spread of infection to any surrounding area.
Medical waste disposal for laboratories is often of a much larger scope than in other types of facilities. Not for the amount of medical waste being generated, but for the types of agents and toxins it may have been exposed to. Laboratories that are operating as research agencies need to be acutely aware of the types of substances they are disposing of, and ensure that it is being segregated away from any typical medical waste and common garbage.