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September 16 - September 23

Question of the Week

Name: Miguel
Status: other
Grade: n/a
Location: Outside U.S.
Country: USA
Date: Winter 2013-14


I know that safety of the kids is primary. But...It appears to me that Newton may be TOO worried. The constant advise to not do microbiology experiments reminds me of the legalese answer to medical questions that some web sites give without even addressing the question. "You should consult your doctor!" I think that kids may be missing out not doing basic microbiology experiments.

Answers from Our Expert Staff

The simple answer is that we cannot control the experiments kids run or the conditions they run them in, so we try to make sure that the risks are clearly understood. OF COURSE a well-trained person can run a safe experiment, but that's not our only target audience. We also answer questions for people who may have no idea what they're getting themselves into.

Your question does reveal an interesting way people perceive -- and underestimate -- risk. It turns out, people are really bad at assessing risk. Our brains are just not wired to compare risks very well. We're good at responding to immediate risks (don't touch that spider!), but bad at understanding more subtle risks. There's lots of research to back this up -- but the short version is that people's intuition about risk tends to be pretty wrong. So at NEWTON, we act accordingly.

With respect to microorganisms, I think you are expressing a point of view that is not uncommon. There are at least two potential reasons you might feel this way. Perhaps you are underestimating these risks because they are difficult to directly experience or connect to the experiment. Or perhaps you have a greater knowledge about the risks than most people, and aren't considering the risks that an under-informed person faces. The risk of a hot stove is clear. But the risks of other hazards are less clear -- especially when effects accumulate over time, or harms occur long after exposure. Playing with mercury is a great example of this. People tend to downplay these risks because the harm isn't closely connected to the exposure. Conversely, a hazard/harm may be highly unlikely, but when it occurs, is dramatic/extremely harmful (struck by lightning). People also tend to dismiss those harms as "unlikely" or "won't happen to me". But it turns out, lightning rods are really important to protect objects and people. "Struck by lightning" is an expression we use for "so unlikely it's basically impossible" -- yet, lightning strikes objects and kills people regularly. Remember, it took decades of public education campaigns and federal law to get people to wear seatbelts. And to be fair, "most of the time" you don't need a seatbelt... but when you do, you REALLY need that seatbelt!

In both cases, people tend to underestimate or downplay the actual risks involved. Thus, our job at NEWTON is to advocate for an informed, knowledgeable decision making process. Since we can't ensure that occurs ourselves, we take the stance of making sure young scientists are properly supervised, rather than "giving permission" to experiment (without knowing the true circumstances). There are so many safety considerations in experiments that we can't observe, so there's no way we can reasonable declare something 'safe' via email.

If you're still unconvinced, let me give some concrete examples where there is a fine line between a student and a great hazard. One is algae. It's fun to grow algae and run experiments, right? BUT, there are many kinds of algae that produce potent toxins. If you happen to grow the wrong algae, you could create an extremely hazardous situation. In small amounts, the toxins might have little effect, but if you concentrate or accumulate them, the situation changes. The world of science is just beginning to understand algae toxicity, so how could a well-meaning but underinformed student know what's safe or unsafe? A better approach is to try to create a different experiment with similar scientific and learning outcomes, but eliminate the direct risks of growing the organisms. That's what we do at NEWTON.

Along the same lines, with microorganisms like bacteria, one of the main defenses our bodies use is the fact that all the bacteria are competing, and so no single bacteria can become concentrated (the collection is called a quora or microbiome). However, in experiments, you disrupt this competition. You might encourage one bacterium or fungus to grow and concentrate. And, you might accidentally select a hazardous organism. It would be very easy to take a smear off a student's hands (where there are lots of organisms), and grow colonies of staph (which can cause nasty infections), and then transfer those colonies back to a student in a concentrated form. Without proper personal protection, the hazard could be acute. An under-informed experimenter may have no idea about the actual risk to which they are exposing themselves. Not a microbiology example, but a more extreme example is mercury. LOTS of people have played with mercury and believe there have been no effects. However, mercury *is* extremely dangerous -- the vapor in particular. Vaporized mercury can be deadly. So if a student were to accidentally vaporize their play-mercury, it could be life-threatening. Definitely not worth the risk!

In all of these cases, there are proper protocols that can make for a safe experiment... but by email we cannot ensure any of them. There *are* safe experiments to run, but our approach is for an expert on site to be in charge, not us by email.

Hope this helps,

NEWTON's Statement:

NEWTON BBS does not recommend growing/culturing bacteria without the supervision of a microbiologist, and a properly equipped microbiology laboratory. Safety is our main concern! Growing dangerous bacteria species unknowingly is a real possibility and serious illness may occur without proper handling techniques. Furthermore, without proper bacterial disposal procedures such as an autoclave can help guarantee, there is a danger to anyone who comes in contact after disposal.

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