Expert Report

Promoting Chemical Laboratory Safety and Security in Developing Countries (2010)

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

Work with chemicals is carried out in small-scale industrial and academic labs across the globe. These facilities pose a unique security threat, because they tend to operate independently and function with less oversight and more public accessibility than larger facilities. Chemical labs in developing countries, faced with financial and other constraints, find it particularly challenging to manage safety and security. Given the growing concern over potential misuse of toxic and hazardous chemicals in acts of terrorism, the U.S. Department of State has called on the National Research Council to assist its program for promoting chemical security and safety in developing countries. The report recommends that the State Department help universities and small laboratories in such countries adopt "best practices" for chemical safety and security. These include developing appropriate policies and plans, putting safety and security training high on academic agendas, and taking steps to improve reporting and leadership accountability. Training and reference materials on chemical management will follow this report, to support direct education in small laboratories in developing countries.

Key Messages

  • Developing countries have unique needs, and their safety and security practices and attitudes vary considerably -- both among developing countries and between developing countries and developed countries.
  • Financial constraints are among the most important bottlenecks in implementing safety practices in chemical laboratories in developing countries. They affect every aspect of safety plans and implementation, because initial investments and sustained support are required to build and maintain a safety infrastructure.
  • Laboratories in small-scale industrial and academic settings typically use small quantities of chemicals, posing less risk compared with industrial scale manufacturing, use, and transport of chemicals. However, they tend to operate independently, have less oversight, and are generally more accessible to the public than large-scale industrial facilities. Such laboratories thus present a vulnerable target for those seeking to do harm.
  • Most laboratories in developing countries are in need of procedures to ensure that there is no diversion by individuals working in laboratories or by visitors, including friends and relatives.
  • Safety is not on the mainstream academic agenda in many developing countries. Aside from a perfunctory orientation, there is almost no formal safety training of students or staff members before they are allowed to work in chemical laboratories.
  • Special climatic conditions in many developing countries hinder compliance with safety practices. Many regions of the world experience extremes in weather and have no provision for controlling indoor temperature or humidity other than the use of ceiling fans and windows. Students in hot and humid environments often do not wear chemical splash goggles or latex gloves, because they are uncomfortable. Appropriate provisions cannot always be made for storing chemicals safely during such conditions.