Do you wear disposable gloves in the lab? Our undergraduates wear them even when building spectroscopes out of cardboard boxes and sticky tape, let alone handling solutions. Our graduate students, working in the research labs use them all the time – even when they’re demonstrating in the undergraduate lab and not actually doing any actual chemistry at all. Although I guess I date from a time when people didn’t wear gloves, and the mild eczema I suffer from may be the result of getting stuff on my fingers, I don’t really understand why we distribute disposable gloves. After all, we don’t use disposable lab coats or disposable safety glasses. Looking round our labs at the end of each day, our rubbish bins are filled to the brim with rubber gloves, used for an hour or two – often less – and then tossed. Our storesman estimates that our Department buys in some 250,000 gloves a year. A quarter of a million gloves sounds like a big number to me.
Why do we use disposable gloves? In the lab our concern is to keep “chemicals” away from our skin, so the gloves are supposed to be a barrier between our glassware and us. This is rather different from the function of the gloves used by people in both the medical arena and the food industry where there is a two-way traffic – such workers can contaminate what they are working with as much as the reverse. In that case therefore, having scrupulously clean gloves is pretty important.
But in a chemistry lab, I’m not so sure that having super clean gloves is so crucial. All that matters is that you keep stuff of yourself, in much the same way as you might use gloves when doing the gardening or the washing up in the kitchen. Indeed if you work with air sensitive materials in an inert atmosphere dry box, you don’t replace your gloves every time you do some work – the gloves are the gloves, and you wipe them down regularly to keep them fairly clean – they’re not really supposed to get very dirty anyway.
The consequences of using reusables is substantial. First of all, they are moderately comfortable so people wear them continuously – this leads to students wandering all over the place while wearing them – out students use them on the lab computers and spectrometers, the scales and so on, contaminating pretty well everything. Yup, it’s bad practice and that’s what we tell them. But it still happens. Secondly because they are comfortable they lead to some rather thoughtless behaviour – it’s common to see students put a gloved finger onto a hotplate to check to see if it’s hot. A few times they melt the rubber onto the tip of their finger. It doesn’t seem very bright, but more worryingly, it’s probably an indication symptom of risk compensation, the tendency of an individual to alter their behaviour when they feel safer, much as if you play football you’ll tackle that little bit more aggressively if you’re wearing shin pads than if you’re not. But students will also slop a lot more solvent onto their gloves while cleaning up, not realizing that gloves have a certain permeability. Does wearing disposable gloves as a matter of routine in a chemistry really reduce accident and injury significantly? Is there any data? Would students operate more cautiously without them? Ironically, one of the things it has done is to slightly increase the number of cases of itching and irriation that the Safety Committee deal with each year. At UCL we’ve now abandoned latex gloves (which, after all, are only a barrier to aqueous solutios but not to dichloromethane and other solvents) in favour of blue or purple nitrile which is supposed to be neutral. It clearly isn’t.
But there is another dimension to this: waste disposal. By using disposable gloves we end up having to send a quarter of a million gloves a year to be incinerated each eyar. These have been used once, and a careful student shouldn’t really have got anything onto the gloves anyway, so they are probably pretty clean. Isn’t it incredibly wasteful? For the sake of an unknown and possibly questionable increase in personal safety we end up spending tens of thousands of pounds for items that could be reused. And then have to pay for someone to take all this stuff away.
So my plan is to try an experiment. Can I convince our Safety Committee and our researchers to go over to reusable gloves? The APS have a nice webapge on glove selection. We issue each student with a pair of gloves at the start of the academic year. Like their lab coats and safety glasses, they write their names on them and they last until they slash them or they perish (the gloves or the student). And let’s see what happens to our rubbish disposal costs and to our not so disposable income.