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teratogen exposure

Barb Lewis barb at nmrfam.wisc.edu
Fri Feb 3 15:59:23 EST 1995

In article <1995Feb1.212648.38029 at cobra.uni.edu>, klier at cobra.uni.edu

(deleted for space)

> Should we be paying more attention to the possibility that some 
> of our students may be pregnant, or become pregnant, while enrolled
> in a lab course?  I teach plant systematics and economic botany
> labs, so this isn't a problem I've given much thought to (my
> safety sermons are more on the line of "Please stay out of the
> poison ivy and don't carry unwrapped razor blades in your pocket!")
> If we make particular mention of teratogens and pregnancy in the usual
> safety lectures we give, are we somehow giving the message that
> "science is too dangerous for women who want kids"?  
> Comments?  Suggestions?
> Kay Klier    klier at cobra.uni.edu

Kay -

This is a very important issue which is, IMO, quite neglected by most
universities. I think it *should* be OK to make sure all women know that
some kinds of scientific activities are too dangerous during pregnancy. We
are only talking about 9 months (possibly twice) during a whole career,
with the health of a new human being at stake.  

I was fortunate to have my first child while working at a national
laboratory which has a very strong safety program. (Probably to make up for
their previously poor safety record, but I digress.) Every new (female)
employee is told that if they become pregnant, they must report it
immediately to their supervisor, so that the safety office can come by and
check out the workplace for possible hazards, both chemical and
radiation-related. (If hazards are found, the woman is to be moved
temporarily to a less hazardous job, then back to her regular one later.)
However, knowing that the most vulnerable time in fetal development is
*before* you know you are pregant, I had my lab areas checked out for
radiation as soon as we decided to start trying to have a child. It turned
out that the area where I would be doing neutron scattering experiments had
significant gamma radiation levels (still within the guidelines for fetal
exposure, but I think these are too high). So, I decided on my own not to
do any more neutron experiments for the time being.

I think that chemical teratogenicity is much more of a hazard than
radiation, simply because it is much less easily measurable and
well-studied. During my second pregnancy (at the University of Wisconsin),
one day I saw a graduate student heating an agarose-ethidium bromide
mixture in the same microwave used for food! (For non-molecular biologists,
ethidium bromide binds DNA very nicely and is a potent carcinogen). As far
as I know, the University pretty much assumes that the faculty know about
chemical safety and supervise their labs closely; whether this is true
depends a lot on the individual professor.
Recently, I saw a sign from the Safety department here (university)
*suggesting* that pregnant workers get radiation levels checked out - no
mention of chemical issues, as far as I know. 

Occasionally, I think of working to make people more aware of these issues,
but have not done so yet (not a lot of spare time these days!) I, too, am
very interested to see what people have to say here.

Barb Lewis, Mom to Katie (7/1/86), Michael and Justin (both 7/29/89)
e-mail: barb at nmrfam.wisc.edu - My own opinions, of course

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