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Are Biological Toxins Being Used in Your Laboratories?

Biological toxins are poisonous substances produced by certain microorganisms, animals, insects, and plants. They can be harmful when inhaled, ingested, injected, or absorbed.

Biological toxins cause diverse toxic effects that can range from relatively minor (skin or eye irritation, headache, nausea) to severe (respiratory distress, muscle weakness, seizures, death). Many biological toxins are highly toxic or fatal even in small quantities (e.g., nanogram amounts) and they are often more toxic than many chemicals.

Numerous biological toxins have been identified with nine of them being on the HHS and USDA Select Agents and Toxins List that includes biological agents and toxins that have the potential to pose a severe threat to both human and animal health, to plant health, or to animal and plant products.

These include botulinum neurotoxins, abrin, paralytic alpha conotoxins, diacetoxyscirpenol, ricin, saxitoxin, staphylococcal enterotoxins (subtypes A–E), T-2 toxin, and tetrodotoxin. Biological toxins on the select agent list require registration with the  Federal Select Agent Program when present above exempt amounts.

Laboratory research can often involve the use of biological toxins. If they are in use at your facility, it’s important that a risk assessment be conducted for each specific toxin to address risk management and determine the proper engineering controls, PPE, and handling practices required.

Most laboratory handling of biological toxins can be safely conducted following strict adherence to biosafety level 2 (BSL-2) work practices including the use of standard personal protective equipment (lab coat, gloves, and safety glasses) and engineering controls, typically a class II biological safety cabinet. Based upon the risk assessment, other controls, and safety practices may be required including:

  • Additional engineering controls (e.g., gloveboxes) and PPE (e.g., respirators), in particular for work with biological toxins in powder form (If possible, work with dry toxin, lyophilized material, or freeze-dried preparations should be eliminated or minimized.)
  • Supplemental training on the specific biological toxins research staff will be handling
  • Implementing an inventory control system (required for biological toxins on the Select Agents list above exempt quantities)
  • Use of locks on storage cabinets in addition to controlled access to the lab
  • Door signage indicating that toxins are in use that includes emergency contact information and entry requirements

Approval of biological toxin use by the Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC) is also strongly recommended, even for those biological toxins that aren’t on the Select Agent List.

For additional information on biological toxins, or for assistance with conducting risk assessments if toxins are used in your research laboratories, please email [email protected].

This blog was written by Beth Graham, our Associate Director of Quality, Research, and Training who has been with Safety Partners for the last 11 years.

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