It’s a staple of movies and TV shows: the Level 4 lab, where scientists in “space suits” race against the clock to find a cure for a mysterious ailment.
But what’s it like to work in a Level 4 laboratory in real life?
Dr. James Strong knows. He’s head of the cell biology section of the department of special pathogens at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, where he is researching how Ebola is transmitted from animals to humans.
Strong spends a couple of hours in the Level 4 lab more days than not, and I recently had a chance to talk to him about it for a book I’m working on.
Level 4 labs are designed to enable researchers to work safely with dangerous and exotic pathogens (Ebola is the best-known example) for which no vaccine or effective treatment exists. The lab has its own ventilation system and no waste materials leave without being thoroughly decontaminated. Workers wear protective suits whose air comes from outside the lab.
The process of going into Level 4 lab starts with preparing any necessary supplies in an ordinary Level 2 lab. Once he’s ready, Strong notifies everyone he is going into Level 4, especially a “back-up buddy” with whom he stays in constant contact via radio.
First he strips and puts on surgical scrubs. Then he goes through a double set of submarine doors into a special dressing room where he dons a protective suit, examining it carefully for leaks as he does so. (A more thorough check is carried out once a week.)
He tells his radio buddy he’s going into Level 4, then he goes through another set of submarine doors. Between them is the chemical shower, which automatically activates as soon as he has passed through the second door and closed it behind him.
The deadly viruses are stored in liquid nitrogen, and their removal from storage is highly regulated. “We have to say the exact quantities that we take out of these things, what they’re used for, and how you’ll dispose of it at the end of the experiment.”
The suits are quite comfortable, Strong says, and mobility in them isn’t bad. Nevertheless, a task that would take just 15 minutes on the outside takes up to an hour and a half in Level 4, mainly due to all the preparation it takes to go in there.
Despite the inconvenience, Strong enjoys working in Level 4. “It’s quite peaceful. You’ve got the nice white background and a gentle breeze on your face and a little bit of white noise. And you don’t have pagers and cell phones and other things going off.”
No more than 10 people can work in the lab at the same time, and in fact there are rarely as many as six, and most often there are no more than two.
The biggest risk in Level 4 is puncturing both the suit and your skin. A small hole in the suit isn’t particularly dangerous, because the air inside it is at a higher pressure than the air in the lab. And the lab air itself is completely renewed every three minutes.
“You occasionally do get a hole in the glove,” Strong says, “which means that you have to quickly dunk your hand into some disinfectant and take yourself out.”
When the time comes to leave, all the materials used in the experiment are carefully secured. Then researchers dunk their hands in disinfectant and exit through the chemical shower. “You take the full six-minute shower, which is two minutes of MicroChem (a disinfectant chemical) and four minutes of water to rinse off the MicroChem, scrubbing to make sure you take care of any kind of sticky stuff that may potentially be stuck on your suit.”
Strong admits that when he tells people what he does for a living, they’re sometimes reluctant to shake his hand.
“People always ask, ‘Did you wash your hands today?’,” he laughs. “But sometimes if I’ve gone into Level 4 I’m cleaner than anybody, ‘cause I’ve had six personal showers by the time I’m done my day!”