Acrylamide is a common research laboratory chemical. Widely used as a cross linking agent for electrophoresis separation procedures, acrylamide is a basic requirement for various biochemical techniques. This familiarity may cause some lab personnel to overlook the hazardous nature of this toxic substance.
Acrylamide is an odorless powder that exists as white crystals. In this form the monomer is extremely dangerous because the dust can easily become airborne and enter the respiratory system. Apart from the respiratory irritation that may result, the monomer is readily absorbed through the mucus membranes into the blood stream. Direct contact with dissolved acrylamide may lead to an exfoliative, reddish rash and can also introduce the monomer into the circulation. Oral exposure is also considered a risk if the employee touches the face with a contaminated glove.
Acrylamide is a powerful central and peripheral nervous system toxicant. Acute (short-term) exposures to low levels of the monomer can damage nerves and cause effects such as drowsiness, lack of coordination, hallucinations, and confusion. Chronic (long-term) exposures can cause severe nerve damage and result in sensory and motor impairment marked by numbness and weakness in the hands and legs, and difficulty walking and speaking. Based upon a number of laboratory and epidemiological studies, the U.S. EPA has classified acrylamide as a probable human carcinogen.
Although acrylamide is a very hazardous substance, it can still be used in a safe manner. All measuring, mixing, and handling of the acrylamide monomer should take place in a chemical fume hood while wearing latex gloves which extend over the cuffs of the lab coat. Wearing two layers of gloves is always an improvement over one layer. Once the monomer has polymerized it is no longer hazardous, however, since there is never 100% polymerization, there will always be toxic monomer contamination. For this reason polymerized gels should be treated with the same caution as the monomer.
Elimination of the hazardous powder is one of the best methods to decrease the risk of acrylamide exposure in the lab. For this reason we strongly recommend using one of the many pre-mixed acrylamide solutions available from various vendors such as Ambion and Boehringer Mannheim. These solutions have the added advantage of being specifically designed for each application and can provide a high level of purity and reproducibility.
As with any chemical in the laboratory, please read the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for Acrylamide prior to use. Acrylamide and contaminated materials should be disposed as chemical waste.