HAMILTON--Denys deCatanzaro has seen it many times: A lab rat bites a graduate student, and the student winds up in the hospital. In most cases, the bite can be cured with the barking of a few choice words and, at most, a couple of stitches. But if the student is allergic to rats, the consequences can be much more severe. In one case, says deCatanzaro, a member of the McMaster Faculty of Science Joint Health and Safety Committee, a bitten graduate student collapsed and his throat swelled shut. Luckily, a labmate serendipitously returned to the lab to retrieve a forgotten item and found the student on the floor. He was rushed to the hospital, treated for anaphylaxis, and released.

For others, the effects of lab allergies aren't quite as severe but can be annoying. According to J.H., a graduate student at McMaster, "I didn't realize how miserable these [empty mouse] cages were making me until I recently returned from my comprehensive exams, during which my allergies were virtually absent. Now that I'm back, I'm constantly stuffed up and have frequent low-level headaches." There are side issues as well, when some people in the lab are allergic and others aren't. "Many of the members in my lab refuse to return [the cages] to animal quarters. This has led to some unneeded conflicts between myself and other lab members."

Regardless of magnitude, laboratory animal allergy (LAA) is a real problem that is often ignored by safety standards. According to Ernie D. Olfert, DVM, M.Sc., who spoke at the 38th Annual Symposium of the Canadian Association for Laboratory Animal Science in June of last year, LAA affects up to 44% of people working with animals and presents a significant occupational health hazard. Fortunately, allergic reactions leading to anaphylaxis are rare. More common symptoms include nasal congestion, sneezing, and itchy eyes and skin, while a small proportion of sufferers develop asthma.

But the largest problem with LAA is that graduate students who develop it are not covered under the Occupational Health and Safety Act unless they are performing teaching assistant (TA) duties. According to Christel Kaiser-Farrell, McMaster manager of accident prevention in the Department of Environmental Health and Safety, "as a student, you are not covered. [You are] only [covered] as a TA--when you are a paid employee." Because graduate students at McMaster belong to a union, they have rights and protection for 10 hours of paid work per week. They have no rights or recourse regarding occupational health issues for the 70 to 90 remaining hours per week that they devote to their thesis research. "A student would have to obtain their own insurance [to cover the risks associated with this occupational hazard]. This office would get involved and work with the student to try to eliminate the exposure, but in terms of looking after the health care [of that student], that's not possible," offered Kaiser-Farrell. Kaiser-Farrell proposed a solution that involved changing one's research line to limit exposure, but for an upper-year Ph.D. student, initiating a new line of research may mean many more years of graduate school. On the other hand, continuing the current research may severely and permanently compromise one's health.

DeCatanzaro puts it more bluntly: "If you come in with allergies, you shouldn't be working with the animals."

So how do you know if you're going to get LAA? Well, those who have a predisposition to other types of allergic reactions are more likely to develop LAA. And, although the onset of LAA symptoms can take up to 9 years, symptoms usually occur within 1 to 3 years. Chances are, if you haven't developed LAA within 3 years of working closely with animals, you probably won't develop symptoms.

But even if you've got a predisposition to LAA, the best preventative steps may lie in the education of prospective graduate students on the possibility of developing LAA and on the importance of safe laboratory techniques. The Canadian Council on Animal Care recommends that workers wear protective clothing such as gloves, lab coats, and respirators to reduce animal exposure. Additionally, animal manipulations should be performed in ventilated areas or safety cabinets if possible. DeCatanzaro, as part of his committee duties, conducts safety inspections and advises personnel working with animals about ways to reduce the risk of LAA. "If we are all conscious of the things we can do to prevent the spread of danger, to contain it, we can reduce the problem," he says.