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03/25/2013

Five things I learned from inside a biosafety 'space suit'

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Last week, I took a quick trip to Winnipeg to visit the Public Health Agency of Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory (my weekend story can be read here). A few days before getting there, my contact at the lab emailed me to ask: did I want to try on a BSL-4 suit during my visit?

Um, yes.

IMG_7138I'm sure anyone who has ever watched a pandemic thriller — like this movie or this movie — has wondered about what it's like to wear one of these space suits. They are the daily uniform of scientists who work inside biosafety level four, or BSL-4, labs — maximum containment facilities where people like Dr. Gary Kobinger (the NML's head of special pathogens, pictured on the left) work with the world's deadliest pathogens, such as Ebola or Lassa fever.

My wardrobe coordinator for the day was lab technician Jason Gren, who hooked me up with one of the lab's yellow suits. At the NML, the suits come in three colours — white (which come from France), blue (American-made) and yellow (made in Germany) — each with their own particular features and quirks. Dr. Kobinger likes the white ones: they are quieter, lighter. Jason prefers blue, which are sturdier but also far louder, because of the way the air flows through.

As a BSL-4 lab tech, Jason both manages the house-cleaning issues (scheduling, dealing with maintenance issues, etc) and works directly with specimens. He is also an NML old hand, having worked there since it first opened in 1999. An animal nurse by trade, Jason still remembers driving past the lab back when it was under construction. "I honestly said to myself I wanna work there," he recalls. "I remember thinking, 'I wanna work with Ebola.'"

(Side note: the day I met Jason was actually his last day as a BSL-4 lab tech. After more than a decade, "it was time for a change," he said. He is now doing a different job, although still working at the NML).

So now that I've spend a few minutes inside a BSL-4 suit, here's what I can tell you:

1. According to Jason, this is the order for which your body parts enter the suit: left foot, right foot, left hand, head, right hand. Then the zipper goes up and voila, you're Ebola-proof (sorta).

2. Your hair will get super staticky and make you itchy and you will not be able to scratch your face. So, a hair tie is advised — and also maybe a headband, suggests Jason (who was less than impressed with my out-of-control hair situation and at one point muttered "holy crap" as he tried for the third or fourth time to zip me up without catching any strands).

3. It's loud. You are hooked up to valves that continuously fill your suit with air. This is for two reasons: 1) to give you oxygen 2) to increase the air pressure inside the suit -- BSL-4 suits are maintained at a positive pressure so that if someone accidentally punctures a hole in the fabric, air will whoosh out of the suit instead of in. 

4. When wearing a BSL-4 suit, everything is harder and takes longer. At one point, Jason had me put a screw into a nut (which I'm attempting in the top photo). Wearing two latex gloves, in addition to the rubbery glove attached to the suit, it took me 30 seconds to simply line the screw up with the nut. I can't imagine the dexterity required of scientists who wear these suits on a daily basis and work not only with needles, but also, you know, vials of things that can kill them and also maybe the rest of Canada.

5. Once you've been wearing it for a while, getting out of the suit is just as exciting as getting into it. "It's like being reborn," I think I said, when I finally took off the suit.

Actually, I felt quite fine inside the suit — just slightly awkward, hard of hearing and fully aware of my resemblance to a blimp. But not everyone feels comfortable inside the suit, says Dr. Kobinger —  wearing one is Lesson #1 for BSL-4 trainees and "some people, who are uncomfortable in the elevator, they don't feel good in the suit," Dr. Kobinger says. "So that's the end of their training."

I leave you now with a picture of BSL-me and Jason, who had the misfortune of spending his very last day on the job stuffing a journalist and her hair into a biosafety suit. Thanks Jason.

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Jennifer Yang is the Toronto Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar

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