Do you ever wonder how some people can simply dismiss the risks of toxic products that they keep around them? This is a constant source of wonderment in the public health community. The reflexive answer is usually that people in question are just uninformed. Therefore we put lots of effort into education. This doesn’t jibe with my experience. What usually happens is that when someone is informed about some risk, they treat the risk like it is either for other people or that the risk is overblown/not real. Think this isn’t true? You should stop into a toxicology lab someday. On second thought, don’t. Here’s why:
Of all the people that should know to be careful around risky chemicals, toxicologists should be at the top of the list. It turns out, however, that we’re just like everyone else. We skirt or ignore precautions, simply to make life and work a bit easier. The funny part of this is that we dont’ take shortcuts with things that will alter the reliability of the data but we’ll play fast and loose with our health. Clearly there is a disconnect and it’s source is very easy to see.
When you get a newbie in the lab they extremely careful about everything. Over time, they don’t die, don’t fall over, and don’t get sick. Despite the knowledge of how the chemicals they are working with really cause harm, this daily lack of obvious harm lulls one into a sense of invincibility. For me personally, working with a chemical every day turned it from ethylmethyldeath to sample A. Sample A really doesn’t seem too harmful (but gee, the rats don’t do well with it at all). Furthermore, more care is taken with chemicals that are understudy but not those that are merely tools. For instance, you’re investigating the effects of 1,3-dimethylchickenwire on rats. You’re very careful not to expose yourself to this chemical, but for the vast number of tissues you have to process, you nonchalantly breathe in the vapor of xylene and a host of other nasties. Sadly, I know quite a few people in their 20s and 30s with heart toxicity from working in pathology labs and not taking appropriate precautions.
So it’s really no surprise that Joe Layman isn’t really concerned about using his cleaning solvent in his small hobby shop. It’s not real until you see the harm. Sadly, yours truely is not immune. In spraying some malathion, I got a little overzealous in my insect hate and sprayed too much, too close, and to top it off, to keep it from dripping on something else, I smeared the running liquid with my hand. Sure enough, I got some tremors and other minor side-effects of exposure.
I propose therefore, appended to the normal leagalese warning on the back of toxic products or public health press releases, the following:
Don’t be an idiot; this s*#t’s for real.