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Cover Story

Your Worst Nightmare

For many officers the greatest fear is not some punk's bullet; it's the business end of a junkie's dirty needle.

November 01, 2002  |  by Lois Pilant

Fear vs. Reality

Warwick Mills’ TurtleSkin gloves have woven Kevlar panels that protect the wearer from needle sticks and razor cuts.

Which brings us to the real question: Exactly how vulnerable are you as police officers to contracting disease from a needle stick, a blood splash, or convict spit?

"The most important thing is to keep it in perspective," Herring says. "The way to do that is to be sure you have all the information about the diseases, how they are transmitted, and the rate of conversion or the likelihood of actually contracting the disease after exposure."

Conversion rates are actually strikingly low. According to the Centers for Disease Control, those exposed to HIV have a 0.3 percent chance (1 in 300) of becoming HIV positive. The risk after exposure from contact to the eye, nose, or mouth is approximately 0.1 percent, or 1 in 1,000. The risk after exposure of the skin to HIV-infected blood is estimated to be less than 0.1 percent. And a small amount of blood on intact skin probably poses no risk at all.

In fact, there has been no documented case of HIV transmission due to an exposure involving a small amount of blood on intact skin. The risk may be higher if the skin is damaged-for example, by a recent cut-or if the contact involves a large area of skin or is prolonged (for example, being covered in blood for hours).

The risk of conversion to hepatitis is slightly higher. Those who received hepatitis B vaccine and developed immunity to the virus are at virtually no risk for infection. For the unvaccinated person, the risk from a single needle stick or a cut exposure to hep B-infected blood ranges from 6 to 30 percent, and depends on the level of the virus and its antigens in the source's blood. Of those exposed to hep C from a needle stick or cut, the risk of infection is approximately 1.8 percent. The risk following a blood splash is unknown, but is believed to be very small.

But just because the conversion rates are low does not mean you shouldn't be cautious. Diseases like HIV, AIDS, and hepatitis are deadly and therefore should engender a certain amount of fear. "Fear is good. It keeps you alive," one officer said. "Panic is bad because you'll blow it."

"I know I have to be careful," adds Officer Skip Chatford, a patrol officer with the Corona (Calif.) Police Department. "But I don't worry about it every day. When I do a search, I don't stick my hands in people's pockets if I can help it. I pull at the top of the pocket and roll the liner out. I just keep rolling until the stuff inside comes out. If I know I'm going to a stabbing or a shooting, I stop and put on gloves before I get there. I stop and think before I do anything. I try to stay aware of what is happening and not rush in without thinking. I feel like I have the education and the equipment I need to protect myself. That's what has dispelled any initial fear I may have."

Things You Should Know About Bloodborne Disease

PatrolStar gloves from BlackHawk Industries have leather outer material and a fluid resistant interior lining to prevent contamination from blood and other body fluids at a crime scene or accident.

Think Twice About Post Exposure Treatment-According to the Centers for Disease Control, post exposure treatment may reduce the chance of HIV transmission, but it is not recommended for all occupational exposures because most exposures do not lead to HIV infection. Also, the drugs used to prevent infection may have serious side effects. Taking them for exposures that pose a lower risk for infection may not be worth the risk of the side effects.

Conversely, Debbie Borst and Laura Herring, both of whom are registered nurses who do in-service occupational training for police departments, reported that of the officers they have shepherded through post-exposure treatment, few complained of serious side effects, and most were able to work during the treatment.

The Eyes Have It-Many officers fear needle sticks, but eye splashes are far more frequent, with body fluid to non-intact skin running a close second. Remember, you don't need a court order to put a mask or hood on a spitting suspect.

Wash Your Hands-The hepatitis virus can live outside the body in any number of places, like the back seats of patrol cars, on a baton, a door handle, your clothes, inside the treads of your shoes, and most important, on your hands.

The best prevention is to keep your hands away from your face and its possible ports of entry (eyes, mouth, nose). Don't eat, smoke, or drink before washing your hands.

When washing your hands, remember that friction is the key to cleanliness. Not hot water. Not even soap. Scrub your hands for at least two minutes.

And never wear your patrol shoes home. Viruses can live in the treads, be deposited on the carpet, and infect your kids while they're lying around on the floor watching "SpongeBob Squarepants."

Know Your Local Burger Flipper-There is evidence that hepatitis B has been spread through fast-food restaurants. This can happen in places where parolees are hired by companies that have a 300 percent personnel turnover, and that don't do drug screens or background investigations, or require that employees wear gloves when handling food.

Some health care experts believe this kind of setting is perfect for a former inmate looking for revenge. He can contaminate an officer's order by spitting in it, or slipping in a bit of dirt or rat feces.

Another exposure route comes from hiring illegal aliens who come from countries where the standards of cleanliness are below those of the United States. Many of these cannot read English or Spanish and may not understand signs admonishing them to wash their hands before returning to work.

Viruses: The Shape Shifters-Viruses are structurally different than bacteria. Antibiotics will defeat most bacteria, but there is no known cure for a virus. A virus can invade the immune system and hide out, sometimes for years. The ability of the AIDS virus to alter its genetic pattern has defeated every attempt to create a vaccine; researchers can't even get close to mapping it because of the speed with which it mutates. This is why many believe finding an AIDS vaccine in our lifetime is impossible.

Trust No One-Universal precautions state that all health care and public safety workers should assume everyone with whom they come in contact is infected, and that general infection control measures should always be employed.

This is especially true for police who, unlike the health care worker operating in a sterile, controlled environment, work in bad lighting, at a frantic pace, and with a customer who is unpredictable and whose medical diagnosis is unknown.

The Good News is that You Probably Won't Get It-Show respect for what is clearly a retinue of deadly adversaries by donning your personal protective equipment, but remember that conversion rates are low.

"You would almost have to cut your palm open, stick it inside a body with AIDS, stir it around for an hour and maybe, just maybe, you might get AIDS," says Norm Kassoff, former director of operations for the Metropolitan Dade County Medical Examiner Department in Miami. "We are finding that the hype with regard to [contracting HIV] is preposterous. People are spending a great deal of money and time and energy to deal with something that common sense and simple precautions should deal with."


Searching a suspect for hidden weapons and drug paraphernalia can be a nerve-wracking and dirty task. But some departments and many individual officers are taking steps to make it safer.

One of the best weapons you can use against contamination is a good pair of patrol gloves.

BlackHawk Industries' PatrolStar offers protection from bloodborne pathogens via a viral/fluid barrier lining between the glove and your hand. The gloves look and feel exactly like any other rugged leather patrol glove, but they're designed to prevent a suspect's body fluids from reaching your skin.

Damascus Gloves' line of "Hand Armor" gloves is designed for hard duty in police and military operations. The Slashmaster models feature drum-dyed leather with Spectra and Kevlar liners for protection against blades.

Hatch Corp. is the distributor for the Gimbel Frisk and Search Glove, a product of Gimbel Glove Co. The Frisk and Search Glove is a disposable solution to protecting officers from puncture wounds and body fluids. Available in boxes of 50 pairs, the gloves are like a cross between surgical gloves and dishwashing gloves. They are comfortable and because they fit almost like a second skin, the wearer retains dexterity. The gloves offer protection in two ways: they cover the skin to guard against fluid contaminants, and there are special polymer mesh inserts in the fingertips to prevent needle sticks and razor cuts.

Warwick Mills' TurtleSkin gloves have earned a reputation for toughness in the field. The gloves are made of machine-washable leather with puncture- and cut-resistant material composed of tightly woven Kevlar.

BlackHawk industries

Damascus Gloves

Hatch Corp.


Lois Pilant is the former editor of a law enforcement magazine, a writer for the National Institute of Justice, and a frequent contributor to POLICE.

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