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Biosafety concerns itself with prevented unwanted effects associated with a process or event that involves living organisms or the products of living organisms. Since humans are the judges of what is unwanted, the most common viewpoint of harm is whether humans will be adversely effected. Even this view is complicated.

For example, the Midwestern states of the U.S.A. were prairie or wetlands before heavy farming. Drainage canals channeled the water into confined paths suitable for monoculture of grains and legumes (soybeans). As a consequence the migratory duck population went into decline. The farmers were happy but the hunters and bird watchers were not. The Government paid some farmers to return some of the lands to wetlands. The ducks have returned. The duck hunters are happy once again. The farmers who receive revenue for returning the land to water fowl habitats are also happy.

What are the biosafety and environmental issues in this situation? The duck population was definitely at risk. Some habitat rescue has taken place. The original drainage had an adverse environmental effect on the various animal, plant, and microorganism populations. Mold infections of human lungs increased (aspergillosis). However, the large scale cultivation of introduced plants had the beneficial result of providing food and other products for human consumption.

We are concerned with biosafety in our daily activities. We pasteurize our milk, wine, beer, to make them safe. We chlorinate the water we drink. We have learned to keep air conditioning systems clean to avoid legionnaire's disease. We immunize against a variety of diseases knowing full well that there is some risk that the immunizing agent itself will cause the disease to be prevented.

We are increasingly concerned about the hazards of biological weapons. Such weapons are the cheapest and easily produced weapons of mass destruction. Ironically, successful production of such weapons requires the most stringent attention to biosafety. Protecting the workers working with biololgical warfare agents is one of the most difficult biosafety problems. The very idea of a biological weapon is to use an agent that is difficult or impossible to protect against!

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.

A risk is the chances that a particular hazard will actually have an adverse effect. Examples of adverse effects of release or escape of animals, plants, and microorganisms details the often dramatic effects of ignorance of the hazards of such incidents. The introduction of the kudzu vine in the southern USA, water hyacinths in Florida canals, guava trees in the Galapagos Islands, rhododendrons in Ireland are plant introductions that crowded out native plants.

Animal introductions are equally well known for adverse effects. The rabbit in Australia continue to pose problems as does the mongoose in Hawaii. The introduction of but three goats by sailors on one of the Galapagos Islands gave rise to a goat population estimated to be 80-100,000 goats. The goats are eating the vegetation, including the bark of the trees. Thus, the unique giant tortoise of the island is at risk of extinction due to habitat destruction.

It is reported that in the '50s, the U.S. Army, studied the dispersal of bacterial aerosols. Aerosols of a supposedly innocuous bacterium were sprayed into the Bay Area Rapid Transit system of San Francisco. The bacterium has a characteristic red pigment and is commonly used in teaching bacteriology. The idea was that the red pigment would allow easy tracking of the bacterium. The effects of this experiment are unknown although such organisms are now known to be opportunistic respiratory pathogens.

Increasingly, we are becoming aware that the consideration of biological hazard is complex. We must consider the hazards to all the species and their habitats. Inappropriate handling of a plant pathogen may well clearly undesirable consequences. Any activity which introduces living organisms or the products of living organisms into new environments deserve, and may legally require, consideration of possible hazard and level of risk.

Consider the following description of the framework for risk assessment as a methodical progression via three main steps.

  1. Identify potential hazards.
  2. Estimate the probability that a hazard will cause actual harm (i.e., the risk) by assessment of of exposure to the hazard and its consequences, and by assessment of the level of risk by consideration of the magnitude of harmful consequences and the likelihood of their realization.
  3. Select and assign appropriate containment and control measures (also termed risk mangement).

Biosafety and risk assessment/risk management capacities are emerging as substantial scientific research and development, agricultural growth, tourism and other industry growth, and conservation issues. Regulation and standards affect virtually all regulatory systems - including public health, food security, occupational safety, environmental protection, and customs, as well as information infrastructures (data standards and intellectual property standards). The issues of biosafety and risk assessment/management have broad infrastructure development implications for both less developed and medium developed countries, and donor and lending agencies.

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.Biosafety is a new issue in shipping and transhipment. 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 analysis.

Last Modified: May 21, 2001
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