In general, biosafety begins with making the workplace safe whether it be a laboratory,
fermentation plant, farm, zoo, ranch, fish farm, fishing boat, etc. Further, the general population
must be kept safe. Finally, the environment must be protected.
Chemical and physical hazards of non-living processes and events are finite. We know how
much chlorine gas was contained in an overturned tank car and can respond accordingly. The
hazard of ultraviolet light exposure on the skin and its relationship to natural levels of melanin
production is reduced in know ways (the SP numbers) by chemical filters in sunscreens, even
though many persons choose to ignore the hazard. Chemical and physical hazards indeed can be
subtle and complex. Consider the chain of events and circumstances that had to come together to
produce the Challenger destruction.
Biohazards are even more difficult to assess and predict by virtue of the defining attribute of life,
reproduction. Thus, prediction of biohazard is confounded by the possibility of uncontrolled
increasing amounts of hazardous material. The famous case of "Typhoid Mary" illustrates this
point. She worked as a food handler without realizing that she was a carrier of typhoid. She did
not have symptoms of the disease. Yet she was a walking biohazard factory, continually shedding
the typhoid bacteria, and contaminating the food she prepared. In turn, the bacteria grew and
infected the people consuming the food.
Biosafety and risk assessment are closely connected. One definition of risk assessment is:
"risk assessments are science-based estimates of the human health risk faced by a
population exposed to a particular substance. The risk should be stated as a range
We shall consider risk assessment later. However, the above definition focuses on human health.
We should consider hazards and risks broadly. The television news broadcasts were filled with
adverse effect pictures of wild life covered with crude oil from the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince
William Sound, Alaska. Biosafety is a cross-cutting policy issue that also encompasses
considerable trade, export, import, and shipping/transhipment of products that are not
genetically-engineered. These include "non-commodity" crops ("orphan commodities",
indigenous natural products, and "lost crops") and exotic crops and new (non-genetically
engineered) hybrid introductions. The traffic includes not merely non-modified "food crops", but
feed crops, trees, flowers, microbial organisms such as mushrooms, yeasts, and other fungi,
bacteria, algae, insects, molluscs(snails), birds, bioremediation technologies, aquatic
macroorganisms (e.g., ornamental fish), and livestock.
Biosafety is a new issue in shipping and transhipment. Hitherto, much of risk analysis in, e.g.,
Africa, has been confined to addressing a series of specific commodity crop biosafety issues (e.g.,
genetically-modified soybean) facing the commercialization of industrialized country GMOs.
Although the question of field testing and risk management at country field levels has been
extensively treated, the issues of risks in shipping and transhipment have had little discussion and
Types of hazards
The potential for hazard of biological materials can be divided into the four categories of
infectious, allergic, toxic, and environmental hazards. Of these, infectious and environmental
hazards are the results of the continuing growth of the organism to produce the undesirable
effect. Allergic and toxic effects may or may not involve concurrent growth of the organism.
- Infection hazard - the potential for disease in man, animals, and plants following
exposure to the living organism or virus;
- The toxic, allergenic or other biological effect of the non-viable organism or cell, its
components or its naturally occuring metabolic products;
- The toxic, allergenic or other biological effect of the product expressed by the organism;
- Environmental effects.
Infectious - An infectious organism is on that can colonize (grow on or in) another organism and
thereby cause a pathology (disease). We are all familiar with skin infections of various sorts in
humans such as the "burning, itching sensation between the toes" that occupies so much
television commercial time in the U.S. Such topical fungal infections are very common and due
to providing a welcome humid habitat for the fungus.
In fact, many kinds of organisms can infect many others. Bacteria can cause stem rot of
mushrooms. Fungi and bacteria can infect insects and are used as biocontrol agents to avoid
chemical pesticides. Bacteria can infect other bacteria. Viruses apparently infect most, if not all
Allergic - Allergic reactions are pathologies resulting from contact with a specific chemical
entity. When the entity is a product of an organism, the chemical is a biohazard. One of the most
common classes of allergens is plant pollen. In humans, the common allergic response is some
form of inflammation. This can range from mild discomfort through incapacitation to death
through anaphylaxis. For example, persons highly sensitive to bee stings must be extremely
cautious and often carry bee sting kits in case of an encounter.
Toxic - Toxic effects are those which, like allegens, are produced by a pathologic reaction to a
specific chemical material made by another organism. The toxin can be either contained in the
other organism (endotoxin) or released from the organism (exotoxin).
Endotoxins are released by the disintegration of the cell and are often complex molecules
containing lipids, carbohydrates, and protein as components. They are relatively heat stable, often
resisting ordinary cooking. They are usually less toxic than exotoxins. However, there the
unfortunate occurance wherein bacteria contaminated the pipeline feeding the bottling of saline
for hospital use prior to the sterilization step. The bacteria were killed in the sterilization process
but the endotoxin released from the killed bacterial cells was lethal upon injection.
Exotoxins are proteins. They lose their toxicity upon heating. However, they can be extremely
potent. For example, the most powerful poisons known on a weight basis are the botulism toxins.
In commercial food production, heat and/or acid is used to detoxify the botulism toxin. Most
modern botulism poisonings are due to inadequate heating in home canning. However, it was not
all that long ago that the Bon Vivant company closed because of deaths resulting from ingesting
inadequately heated canned vichysoisse.