WAACNewsletter
September 1998 Volume 21 Number 1


Health and Safety

Chris Stavroudis, Column Editor

In an episode of Fox Television's show "Ally McBeal," the ex-boyfriend-now-married-to-another-lawyer-in-the-office asks Ally why her problems are always more important than other peoples' problems. Ally replies: "Because they are MY problems."

I'm having an Ally McBeal moment.

After all I've read, researched, and written on lead and the potential for lead poisoning in conservation, I guess it's only to be expected that when the building next to my home/studio was recently repainted, I would find potential lead contamination.

The exterior of the 1920's apartment building next door was dry scraped prior to repainting. I foolishly didn't test the paint flakes that rained down on our driveway, entryway, cars, and vegetable garden until the scraping had been completed. And, as you probably guessed, some lower layers of paint tested -- say it with me -- positive for the presence of lead.

This brings up a topic I haven't covered as completely as I should have in past columns; testing for lead. I used a LeadCheckTM swab, manufactured by HybriVet Systems, Inc. (P.O. Box 1210; Framingham, MA 01701; (800) 262-LEAD). The swab consists of a cardboard tube with two glass ampoules inside and some fibers protruding from one end. To use the swab, one crushes the cardboard in two spots to break the ampoules, shakes the tube to mix the reagents, and squeezes some of the amber-colored test reagent into the fibers. The fiber/reagent is rubbed onto the surface being tested, and "if it's red, there's lead." The swabs can be obtained from many hardware stores and from safety suppliers.

There are some limitations to the test. It doesn't work on red paints. [Properly, it does work, you just can't see the result.] It is not quantitative and therefore is not acceptable to HUD, OSHA, or EPA. It is also difficult to apply to samples of dust. Finally, when you have a number of samples to screen (that's a better term than testing), the cost of the swabs can add up.

I found myself wishing I had gotten around to ordering the D®Tect¨ lead test kit manufactured by ESCA Tech (3747 N. Booth St.; Milwaukee, WI 53212; (414) 962-LEAD). The system consists of D®Wipe¨ Towels, pre-moistened cloths treated with a proprietary material that picks-up heavy metal contamination, and two indicator solutions. After wiping a test area, the towel is sprayed with the developer and indicator solutions. If there is a detectable level of lead on the cloth, a yellow color change occurs.

After having determined that there was potential lead contamination, my response to the situation, right or wrong, was to minimize the spread of the potential contamination and monitor our household for lead poisoning. I may have looked like a complete nut vacuuming the outside of our building, the driveway, and the surrounding dirt with my HEPA filtered vacuum, but I got rid of a prodigious number of paint flakes.

This cleanup process went on for a few weeks. (There were a number of rain storms and the area did not dry out enough to allow vacuuming for some time.) I did, however, make a profound observation that is relevant to conservators. The longer the paint chips were exposed, the smaller the fragments became. Not a surprise when you think about it, but significant if studio hygiene isn't what is should be.

Big chunks of lead-containing materials are a significant hazard because they will be broken into ever smaller pieces. And it is the smaller pieces that pass through conventional vacuum cleaner filters or otherwise become airborne. And it is the small, ground-up bits that can be inhaled, be consumed with that banned cup of coffee, or contaminate your fingers and pass via your lunch into your body. What's the verdict? Say it with me now: "proper hygiene."

I've said it in previous columns and I'll reiterate now: Every conservation studio should have a HEPA filtered vacuum. Every conservator should observe proper laboratory hygiene: clean up promptly and properly; wash your hands often; and don't eat, drink or smoke in the workplace. To that list, you might want to add: wear a lab coat or smock, at least when working with something potentially toxic.

We also checked our one year old daughter's blood lead level. It was the same as a previous test (mandated by the state) taken two months before.

I also had our cat's blood lead level checked, thinking that he would probably have the greatest exposure as he is an indoor/outdoor cat. (Remember, in our case the contamination was outside with the potential for being carried inside our living space.) And he licks himself far more that any of the humans with whom he shares his home. Reassuringly, his blood lead level was also on the low side of normal.

So, at the end of this drama, we are all ok. And, no lawyers were involved except for the allusions to those seen on TV.

Often this column wanders from occupational health to more general safety issues. Consider a colleague's Ally McBeal moment, or, what do you do in a thunderstorm?

Hilary's house was struck by lightning. It was a brief storm, lasting only a couple of minutes. The lightning struck a tree next to her home, jumped to the gutter downspout, blew off pieces of the asbestos-containing siding, and entered her electrical system. Perhaps she was just thinking really hard, but more likely it was the lightning surge that exploded the light bulb above her head. The surge was without doubt responsible for frying her answering machine, telephone, and exterior lights.

Anyone who knows Hilary will not think her name is eponymous for First Lady, nor will they be surprised to find out that she didn't lose her computer, because she wisely keeps it unplugged. [Interestingly, the monitor was damaged, seemingly by the electro-magnetic field generated by the lightning strike. While still functional, the colors are now wonky.]

But what about you, gentle reader? Do you switch-off electrical appliances during an electrical storm? I do, but until I heard Hilary's story, I didn't know to unplug them, too. Unless you have a lightning arrestor (professionally installed by an electrician) that surge protector may not spare you from a direct hit.

But what about those other lightning dangers that mother told you about and that we've forgotten as we become more and more technologically cocooned? Don't bathe when lightning is present. Get off the phone, too. The electrician who fixed Hilary's damage told her about a friend who had his knees and elbows blown out by a lightning strike conveyed through a phone in a thunder storm.

Other News: Sadly, the Center for Safety in the Arts is no more; Art Hazards News is defunct; and there is one less source of information for conservators and artists.

Next issue: "South Park" (the cartoon) and an investigation into whether occupational safety played any role in the deaths of Kenny.

Chris Stavroudis is a conservator in private practice
(who watches too much television).

(The WAAC Newsletter is not responsible for the television viewing habits of its column editors. Regarding Ally McBeal, the less said the better; however it is beyond me how anyone of intelligence and discernment can tolerate South Park while The Simpsons continues its long run of wickedly funny cultural and political commentary. Ed.)

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