Legacy samples yield headaches

Legacy waste awaiting removal from UC Davis. Courtesy of Debbie M. Decker.

Several safety breaches involving pathogens have brought attention to the problem of legacy samples. Vials of smallpox dating to the 1950s were discovered in unsecured Food & Drug Administation labs on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Md., earlier this summer.

Then, last week, the Washington Post reported that NIH workers found ricin, the bacteria that cause plague, and other so-called “select agents” where they weren’t supposed to be. Meanwhile, FDA found staphylococcal enterotoxin in a lab that wasn’t supposed to handle it. Select agents are “biological agents and toxins have been determined to have the potential to pose a severe threat to both human and animal health, to plant health, or to animal and plant products,” according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

There may be more coming: The White House Office of Science & Technology Policy has requested a safety stand-down in which government labs and nongovernment labs that receive federal funding are encouraged to do “an immediate sweep of their facilities that possess, use, or transfer human, animal, or plant infectious agent or toxin holdings to identify Biological Select Agents and Toxins (BSA) and ensure their proper registration, safe stewardship, and secure storage or disposal,” according to an Aug. 18 memo. An Aug. 27 NIH notice says that its labs are conducting inventories of infectious agents and toxins.

I’m sure all scientists can imagine what may have happened here: Someone left without clearing their bench or their lab. Someone else took over. Instead of cleaning out, they pushed the samples to the back of the fridge or storage area. Repeat.

But someone, someday has to deal with it. Last year, the University of California, Davis, chemistry department cleaned out more than 10,000 lb of hazardous waste that had accumulated over decades, department safety manager Debbie M. Decker said in a talk at the ACS Meeting in San Francisco last month. Potentially explosive compounds filled a roughly 10 ft3 bunker, and it took about six months to get everything removed from campus for disposal, Decker said.

So far, no one at NIH has gotten ill from the old samples. Nor was anyone at UC Davis hurt. But was it worth the risk not to clean out samples, reagents, or solvents sooner? Even if you think you might use something someday, will you trust that it’s still good by then? Delaying disposal often just makes cleaning out more expensive, too, especially if you can no longer read a label or something becomes potentially explosive over time, such as with diethyl ether peroxides.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. A comment from an anonymous user who’s having trouble with the math CAPTCHA (anyone else?):

    FYI, there seems to be confusion between pathogenic bacteria and various protein toxins.
    Initially Washington Post state they “found staphylococcal enterotoxin in a lab that wasn’t supposed to handle it.” whereas, further down the WAPO article the quote from the FDA stated the facility “has labs registered to work with staphylococcal enterotoxin, samples of the pathogen”(sic, it is a protein) “were discovered in the freezers of a lab that had not been registered with the CDC to handle the bacteria.”(sic, it is a protein) and that “vials were safely stored, they collectively contained eight milligrams of staphylococcal enterotoxin — three milligrams more than the quantity needed to be considered a dangerous “select agent.” There was nothing to suggest this was a legacy waste issue or that lab workers were un-aware of the contents.

  2. And I will respond: Fair enough on the staphylococcal enterotoxin, but I’d still bet that the 1950s and earlier samples were a legacy problem.