14 April 2012
By Blanka Sengerová
Recently, I had to significantly reassess the type of work I was willing to do in the laboratory, and this may resonate with others who were in a similar situation. Many of us moan about the health & safety regulations that govern any work that is done in the laboratory (curiously, I was told that H&S rules are a lot more lax in the US where I would expect institutes to be a lot more paranoid given the - at least perceived - suing culture of the country), but they are all there to protect us.
Before I was pregnant I was doing a lot of work with radioactive 32P, routinely used to label DNA substrates (or proteins in some cases) to visualise these after enzyme reactions on gels. I never did any of this in my PhD project but my current project involves a lot of radioactive work. The plus of radiation (and likely the reason why it is still used quite extensively) is the sensitivity of the technique, which is not achieved by alternative methods such as fluorescence. RA work is relatively safe, especially working with 32P which has a half life of 14 days, because you work behind a screen and are pretty well shielded from the beta radiation it emits.
However, when it comes to being pregnant the advice is obviously to try and avoid doing RA work if at all possible. Curiously, though, my department does not expressly forbid you from doing the work. When you write the risk assessment for use of radiation when pregnant, the radiation supervisor advises you to avoid the work if at all possible and to certainly not to certain tasks (pipetting from a stock pot, emptying RA bins, etc.), but there is no categorical rule of 'thou shall do no RA work'. I think such a rule was in place in my PhD department (someone there was even disallowed from being in the lab totally). I am told that the reason why the work is not categorically forbidden is because by forbidding pregnant women from doing RA work they have to admit that any users (not just pregnant women) are exposed to some radiation and therefore no one should be allowed to do such work.
This leads to the scientists themselves making the decision as to whether continue with the work (with precautions) or not. Personally, I would prefer if a categorical rule was in place, because it means that pushy bosses might bully you into continuing with the RA work (I hasten to add that that wasn't the case with me, as soon as I told my PI what the situation was, he assumed I wouldn't be working with RA). If such work was expressly forbidden, they couldn't do that. What do you think?
If there are some departments that effectively ban pregnant women from doing work in the laboratory (because of the chemicals you could be exposed to), is that the other extreme which isn't helpful either, because you effectively cannot work on your project for the nine months prior to maternity leave.