From ‘Evidence Protection’
to ‘Personal Protection’:
How To Keep Lab Analysts Safe
Personal protective equipment not only protects the evidence from
forensic analysts, but more importantly, it protects analysts
from the evidence.
Until a couple of months ago, we used simple surgical masks to
protect our nose and mouth from exposure to the substances we
handled, but that is no longer enough.
We have moved to N95 particulate respirators for routine use,
a 5000 series disposable respirator for vapors and particulates and
an N100 respirator for our high-risk cases.
Analysts now have closed containers for carrying samples outside their work areas, and biohazard containers have been placed
in all work areas so analytical waste and other items that might
come in contact with a case sample can be directly disposed.
Evidence confirmed as fentanyl or a fentanyl analog is repackaged and sealed in an additional container and marked as a “
hazardous material” before it is returned to the submitting agency.
None of this, however, is as significant as the naloxone or Narcan doses we now have scattered throughout the lab.
We have trained our staff to recognize the signs of opioid overdose and how to administer the Narcan and provide first aid until
In the past, a second analyst had to be present if someone was
testing evidence. Now three analysts need to be present so two can
assist if the third is exposed: one to administer Narcan while the
other seeks additional assistance.
And to think, it was only 10 years ago that I first really thought
of personal protective equipment, or PPE, as something designed
to protect me from the evidence.
Dr. Peter Stout, Houston Forensic Science Center’s CEO and
I, too, remember the days when we all thought of PPEs first as a
way to protect and preserve the evidence.
I remember when smoking was still allowed in the laboratory,
mouth pipetting was commonplace and people routinely ate and
drank while performing forensic analysis.
Slowly, all of that disappeared.
It was the onset of HIV and hepatitis B that brought on rapid
change. The technology for DNA analysis had simultaneously
become far more sensitive and so the evidence also needed to be
James Miller, Houston Forensic Science Center’s Controlled
Substances Section Manager:
It was about 10 years ago while testifying in court that I start- ed to think of gloves as a tool that protects me as much as it does the evidence.
A defense attorney had asked if I wore gloves during analysis
to prevent cross-contamination. I thought about my response for
a moment, and then acknowledged that, yes, that was part of the
reason for using gloves.
But added that wearing gloves also protected me from the
It was the first time I had really thought of it that way.
As scientists we are accustomed to wearing lab coats, gloves
and safety glasses to prevent exposure to chemicals. As forensic
analysts we are often more focused on protecting the evidence
from change or contamination.
Today, however, with the influx of dangerous fentanyl analogs,
my first thought is about the personal protection of my staff when
I consider the tools they need to safely perform analysis.
Evidence protection is still important, but now I am keenly
aware that extra steps have to be taken to keep analysts safe from
Consider this: A lethal dose of carfentanil, the elephant tranquilizer that has made a debut on city streets, is so small it cannot
be seen with the naked eye.
Added to the danger is the various ways it can get into the
body: accidentally ingested by putting a finger in the mouth after
handling it, through a mucus membrane by rubbing your eye or
nose, or inhaled if it’s a powder that becomes airborne.
Latex, we have learned, may not be a strong enough barrier
to prevent a dose of carfentanil from being absorbed through the
skin. And even though we believe a much larger amount is needed
for absorption through an epidermal layer to be deadly, we can’t
take the risk.
So now we are using nitrile gloves exclusively, with the exception of a few people who are allergic, and providing long-cuff
gloves for analysts handling suspected fentanyls.