Safe science does not have to be soporific

11th September 1998 at 01:00
Of course it was the silly season. All those pages to fill up and nothing to report except the usual complaints that because pass rates have gone up again, standards have fallen.

Even so, Helen Flatley's article on those science experiments that she could no longer do was a bit far-fetched (TES, August 21).

Unfortunately, she is only one of a number of people who perpetuate the many myths and rumours about bans on formerly popular procedures or on the use of particular chemicals.

To the best of my knowledge nobody, except perhaps Helen Flatley's employer, has ever suggested a ban on inflating lungs with the help of a bit of rubber tubing down the trachea. As there is no significant hazard, there is no need for a risk assessment and no need to involve her institution's safety officer.

Moreover, I see no reason why, providing she and her students stick to some simple precautions, they should not take cheek cell samples.

Neither does the Institute of Biology, nor the Department for Education and Employment which, for example, in Safety in Science Education states: ". .. it is essential to follow a safe procedure which further reduces the already minute risk of infection and to make sure pupils are sufficiently reliable to follow instruction. " Hardly a ban! It is true that under the Specified Bovine Offal Order 1995 it is in effect illegal to supply the eyes of cows or bulls for dissection and under the Heads of Sheep and Goats Order 1996 it is similarly illegal to supply goat or sheep eyes.

However, pigs' eyes (or, for that matter, those of deer or ostriches) can be used quite legally. As there is no hazard from the eyes, there is no need for a risk assessment for the use of the eyes.

There may well be a hazard from a blunt (or, as in your cartoon, plastic) scalpel, but the control measure in that case is to use a sharp instrument.

Any employee must, by law, co-operate with herhis employer on health and safety matters. Therefore, if Helen Flatley's employer has misguidedly banned some of these activities, she must respect those bans - but that is no reason why she should not fight against them.

She should join the Association for Science Education and ask its safeguards in science committee to argue on her behalf with the safety officer.

She should persuade her institution to subscribe to the CLEAPSS School Science Service and ask its advisory staff to intercede, not only on her behalf, but on behalf of her poor students who are at serious risk of injuring themselves as they fall off stools, when the sheer boredom of practical-free lessons sends them to sleep.

Peter Borrows

Director CLEAPSS School Science Service Brunel University Uxbridge

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