What Chemistry lab safety (and mom’s rules) teach us about how to protect ourselves from the flu or viruses like the Coronavirus.

As my readers know, I am trained as an academic chemist and spent a decade teaching in lab environments. Since I left the academic community, my work has included a lot of time doing occupational health and safety. This practical background has taught me a lot about how to protect myself from dangerous chemicals and this training translates directly to how to protect yourself from nasty viruses like the Coronavirus.

Viruses aren’t magic, like dangerous chemicals, they are only a risk if there is an exposure pathway and there are some simple rules to help interfere with that pathway and protect yourself from infection.

Watching the media it has become apparent to me that the public is missing some of the most important lessons we have been given about how to prevent the spread of dangerous viruses and it all goes back to those lessons your mothers taught you as kids (and we teach in the lab):

  • Wash your hands (and wear gloves)
  • Keep your hands to yourself (don’t touch that)
  • Keep your hands away from your face,
  • Don’t wear outside clothes inside (and keep your hands out of your pockets) and
  • Use your sneeze pockets (or wear a mask).

In the rest of this blog post I will explain why following these rules will increase your likelihood of staying flu-free and will better prepare you in case the Coronavirus makes it to our shores.

Wash your hands (and wear gloves)

The first rule we learn in the chemistry lab is that to protect yourself you have to wear your personal protective equipment (PPE). In a lab your PPE includes your lab coat, safety glasses and nitrile gloves. The reason we do this is because when you work in the lab you are going to come in contact with compounds that can harm you and your PPE is your first line of protection.

From a human health perspective wearing gloves and washing your hands is the absolute best thing you can do to protect yourself from infection. Think about your last visit to a hospital and ask yourself, what were the nurses, orderlies and doctors wearing? Most weren’t wearing masks but all were wearing gloves and scrubs. I will deal with scrubs later but let’s first talk about gloves.

Gloves are the easiest way to protect ourselves from infection. Virtually every public surface is covered in germs and gloves protect your hands from those germs. If you don’t want to wear gloves in public then as the Centers for Disease Control points out you need to

perform hand hygiene (e.g., handwashing with non-antimicrobial soap and water, and alcohol-based hand rub if soap and water are not available) after having contact with respiratory secretions and contaminated objects/materials.

If you are wearing gloves then remember

remove gloves after contact, followed by hand hygiene. Do not wear the same pair of gloves for care of more than one patient. Do not wash gloves for the purpose of reuse.

Remember, during flu season you should assume that every public surface represents contaminated objects/materials. Which brings us to rule Number #2

Keep your hands to yourself (don’t touch that)

As a parent I am constantly reminding my kids to keep their hands to themselves. This builds on our first rule. My kids are constantly running their hands along every horizontal surface. Doing so covers their hands with germs.

During cold and flu season think about what you are touching and keep contact with foreign materials to a minimum. When walking up stairs hover your hand over the hand rails don’t drag your hand over it. If you are going somewhere where you will need a pen bring your own and if you know that you will need to use things like shopping carts then bring wipes (or use the supplied wipes) to clean the surfaces you need to touch.

Now the reality is that we will have to touch things in public which brings us to Rule #3.

Keep your hands away from your face

As we all know, humans evolved on a planet full of germs, and our bodies are well equipped to protect us from germs. Our skin is our first layer of protection. Our nasal passages are designed to trap materials and keep them away from our interior. Our mouth is connected to our digestive system which helps protect us. There is one access point that is not well defended, that is your eyes. It is well-established that viruses can get into your body via your eyes.

One of the worst accidents I encountered in the Chemistry lab involved a completely innocuous series of events. My lab colleague was working with an organic solvent; he had on his lab glasses and was wearing nitrile gloves. Then he had an itchy eye. He reached behind his safety glasses to rub his eye, and etched his cornea with the organic solvent.

The simple truth is, when in public assume that your hands are covered in germs and anytime you scratch your eyes you are injecting whatever is on your hands directly into your system. So in public keep you hands away from your face.

If you are wearing gloves (or have been outside) then you have to assume that your hands are dirty/covered in germs. If you pick up a pen while wearing gloves, then whatever was on the outside of the gloves is now on your pen. If you then put that pen in your mouth whatever was on your glove is now in your mouth. Put the pen in your pocket and your pocket is now a problem.

This brings us to Rule #4

Don’t wear that inside (and keep your hands out of your pockets)

Earlier in this piece I talked about doctors, nurses and orderlies wearing scrubs at the hospital and chemists wearing lab coats in the lab? An easy way to protect yourself from chemicals and germs is to have outside clothes and inside clothes.

Lab coats (or medical scrubs) are intended to protect the wearer from exposures but that means they pose a risk to anyone who comes in contact with them. Lab coats are designed to protect the user from spills by keeping the spill on the outside layer of the fabric. That means the outside fabric of the lab coat is potentially dangerous since any spilled material will remain on the outside of the coat. If you are wearing a contaminated coat and it touches someone, the compounds on that coat will then be transferred to that person.

As such you never wear your lab coat outside of the lab. Clothing used in the lab should stay in the lab. If you are wearing a coat outside, don’t wear it inside. During cold and flu season change your clothes when you get home and put those used clothes in the wash.

Another thing to remember is during flu season try to avoid using your pockets. Remember the comment about pens in the pockets? This goes even more when it comes to flu and viruses. Anything on your hands ends up in your pockets and if you use Kleenexes then your pockets are germ central. Wash your pants/top regularly and avoid putting your hands in your pockets if you can.

Use your sneeze pocket or wear masks

As I noted earlier in this piece, when you go to the emergency room you don’t see the doctors and nurses wearing masks. While some research indicates that the correct use of masks may, in limited circumstances, protect the wearer from illness most studies show them to have little effect. The big thing masks do is protect the rest of the world from you.

If you are sick sneeze into your sneeze pocket and if you are sick, or fear you may become sick, then wear a mask. For those wondering the sneeze pocket is the crook of your arm. When you feel the sneeze coming reach your arm across your face and the crook of the arm will fit naturally over your nose/mouth. Since that portion of your arm doesn’t generally come into contact with other objects it is a safe place to control your sneeze.

As for the masks, recent research from the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that the fancy N95 masks are no more effective than surgical masks at protecting medical practitioners from exposure to influenza.

The thing to remember is that you shouldn’t assume that the mask will protect you from infection. Masks do indeed prevent you from inhaling aerosols and droplets, but they simply don’t hold a candle to the important three rules:

  • Wash your hands
  • Keep your hands to yourself, and
  • Keep your hands away from your face.

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4 Responses to What Chemistry lab safety (and mom’s rules) teach us about how to protect ourselves from the flu or viruses like the Coronavirus.

  1. Andrew Roman says:

    Thanks for this excellent summary. A few questions:

    1. I don’t use pens very often, use my phone and laptop for notes, etc. My phone screen and laptop keyboards must be thoroughly contaminated, but I can’t put them into the washing machine or wear gloves while using them. Any suggestions about how to clean them?

    2. What is a sneeze pocket? My pants and shirts don’t come labelled with these.

    What’s wrong with washing hands with antimicrobial soap? I thought this would be helpful to get rid of bacteria.


    • Blair says:

      Use wipes on your keyboard but recognize they are hard to clean. A sneeze pocket is the inside of your elbow. When you start to sneeze do lift your arm and the space naturally is in the right location. Antimicrobial soaps with alcohol are fine but the others enhance bacterial resistance and you should restrict your use.


  2. a dad says:

    “When you feel the sneeze coming reach your arm across your face and the crook of the arm will fit naturally over your nose/mouth.”

    My kids call this the “Vampire Sneeze”


  3. dcardno says:

    Interesting comments about keeping hands out of pockets – I have been putting my hands IN my pockets as a way to remind myself not to touch anything unless it’s deliberate.


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