Computer database being developed at Temple will allow for better inventory of chemicals

August 24, 2004

Keeping up-to-date inventories of chemicals being used in laboratories throughout a major research institution like Temple University can be a daunting task, often requiring untold lab visits and countless man-hours to complete.

But now, thanks to virologist Jay Rappaport, Ph.D., an AIDS researcher in Temple's Center for Neurovirology and Cancer Biology, the task may soon get much easier.

Rappaport, who chairs the University's bio-safety committee, has developed a prototype database and software that will more efficiently manage chemical and biological inventories, while aiding in regulatory and safety compliance.

"Researchers or lab managers only have to submit a chemical inventory once a year," says Rappaport. "That's not a real-time inventory of what's actually in the lab. And even though it's a federal requirement that an inventory be filed, some just don't do it."

Rappaport says the database will keep an inventoried record of chemicals in all labs across campus and screen for hazardous chemicals, explosives and water reactives--information that would prove especially useful in the case of an emergency such as a fire.

"The people in the labs need to know what they're working with and what's hazardous," he explains. "In the case of an emergency, response personnel also need to know what they're dealing with.

"For example, if you have a fire in a lab, and that lab has large quantities of water re-actives in it, you don't want to spray water at the fire, because that's just going to make the situation worse," Rappaport adds. "That's why many times in these situations, emergency personnel won't enter a lab until they have a good idea what they are dealing with. Basically, this database will quickly provide them with that information." The system may also help to prevent laboratory accidents. For example, there are some chemicals which, left too long, can form peroxides, which can create hazardous situations.

"If these peroxides form in significant concentration, they could explode, particularly while being moved. But you can query the database to see where these chemicals might be stored and how long they've been on the shelf, so you can have them removed before they become hazardous."

In addition, Rappaport believes the inventories database will save the University money by monitoring chemicals and allowing for sharing within departments and adoption of no-longer-needed chemicals designated as "orphans." This saves on both purchasing and hazardous waste disposal fees.

Rappaport said he looked at some commercial inventory packages that are currently available, but felt none provided all of the features that the University needed, so he began exploring the possibly of creating his own inventory database system. The Office of the Vice President for Research has supported the effort with a $10,000 grant. Computer Services has also agreed to help in the next phase of the project, which is to convert the database to a Web-based format and integrate the electronic data interchange that will allow researchers to purchase chemical supplies from University-approved vendors directly through the database.

Among the additional features that Rappaport has incorporated into Temple's system are a biological agent inventory and a system for monitoring laboratory safety equipment and safety training for lab personnel. "We've created a database within the database that monitors what type of safety training particular individuals who work in the labs have received," explains Rappaport. "Some of the training--for people who work with blood-born pathogens, for example--has to be renewed every year."

The database would monitor the training certification and send an automatic alert when it is about to expire.

"The same thing with inspections of fire extinguishers, biological and chemical safety cabinets, emergency showers and eyewash stations in the labs--they're all checked at different intervals," says Rappaport. "With the database, you're able to see at a glance right from your computer what safety equipment is due for inspection or is out of compliance without having to go walking through buildings or rummaging through file cabinets."

Rappaport also expects the database to assist the University's environmental health and safety official in generating mandatory reports for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

"The University must file a report with EPA on over 450 chemicals and the report must be in pounds and by building where these chemicals are used or stored," says Rappaport. "To dissect this information out manually takes an enormous amount of time and manpower.

"This inventories database can compile the information automatically," he adds. "It hopefully will make life a lot easier for the environmental health and safety people this year.

"We still have a lot of work to do," concludes Rappaport. "The prototype we have needs to be converted to a Web-based application to enable multiple users and at the same time, provide a high level of security."

Temple University

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