WAACNewsletter
September 2001 Volume 23 Number 3

Health and Safety

Look Up

Chris Stavroudis, column editor

The title of this column can be taken in a number of ways, most of which are intended. After September 11, we all could use a little reassurance. "Look up, things will get better." On a health and safety level, it can be taken as check your MSDSs and reference books about the hazardous materials you use. On a more threatening and sinister note, it harkens back to the World War II admonition, "Watch the Skies..." And in the most literal interpretation, it refers to occasionally casting your eyes up above the horizon and looking at what's above you as you work.

Look up. We don't do it enough. We don't scan our environment. I am so embarrassed to say this on the record, but last week, we were moving a scaffolding from a work site to overnight storage. We were rolling along slowly and suddenly the whole thing stopped. We looked down and around and didn't see anything. We pushed again and the scaffolding still wouldn't move. Finally we looked up. We had walked into some power lines. Fortunately, nothing happened. But we were extremely lucky.

Not looking up. Not recognizing something as obvious and fundamental as watching the top of the scaffolding as well as the wheels. Shockingly stupid.

I did do something right with the scaffolding too, however. In the treatment of the mural, we were using an emulsion adhesive and small tacking irons to set down lifting paint, with sponges and buckets of water for clean-up. The tacking irons were plugged in. The scaffolding was metal. Sounds like a bad idea, doesn't it. Water, metal, and 110 volts shouldn't mix.

I've written about the answer to this type of electrical safety problem before. I've also heard from readers that they just don't get what a Ground Fault Interrupt does. A Ground Fault Interrupt (GFI) is a remarkable device. It does exactly what its rather cumbersome name describes. If there is a ground fault, it interrupts the power. A ground fault is any situation when the electricity is flowing to ground (earth) through something (or someone) rather than through the wires that are supposed to carry it. So, we plugged a GFI device into the power outlet, and the extension cord into the GFI. The GFI protects everything and everyone working upstream of the device.

How does the GFI work in real life? Suppose I had cracked under the monotony of setting down acres of little flakes of paint. I throw a temper tantrum and stomp my foot into one of the buckets of water. And, flinging my tacking iron down in disgust, I manage to hurl it into the same bucket of water into which I have stepped. Losing my balance, I grab the railing of the metal scaffolding.

In my little make-believe scenario, without the GFI, I would be toast. With the GFI placed between myself and the electrical mains, I would merely be in dire need of a little vacation at the home for nervous conservators.

So, are you still confused about what exactly a GFI is? It is the little annoying thingie one sees on the ends of hair drier cords. They are those funny looking outlets in bathrooms. They always have two buttons, "test" and "reset." Sometimes, when you first use the appliance, it doesn't work and you have to press the "reset" button. And finally, there are GFIs units that plug into a wall outlet or are wired into extension cords. Whatever the physical form, they prevent most forms of electrocution. Remember, a GFI does not always protect against getting a shock from contacting both power conductors simultaneously.

As a general matter of electrical safety, all outlets in a conservation studio should be protected by GFIs. The easiest way to accomplish this is by replacing all of your electrical outlets with GFI receptacles. If you are out of your studio or can't switch the outlets, use the plug-in GFIs.

A reader wondered about her past exposures after reading the discussion on the hazards of CCA treated lumber in last issue's column and lead hazards in previous ones. She wrote: "I was concerned about having been exposed to lead while living in old studio buildings which may have been coated with lead paint. The thought of lead dust drifting down from the rafters and landing on my bedding and the surface of my morning coffee led (or lead) me to have one studio sand blasted....there was a basement with wood working equipment where they were cutting and standing Formica....The guy upstairs was making sculptures with old telephone poles."

Past exposure is a very troubling issue for many of us. We have all been exposed in the past to materials we now know we should have avoided. In most cases there is nothing to be done. Just remember these exposures should you have any medical problems and discuss them with your doctor. Consider your over-exposure history to be something like your family medical history. While often irrelevant, it might be significant in some occasions and might even speed diagnosis or effect treatment.

Let's address the specifics of these questions. Lead paint is pretty safe if it is well bound in paint and the paint stays were it was placed. It becomes hazardous when it begins to flake, is abraded into fine powder, or is burned. (Ironically, sand blasting might have made the problem temporarily worse. Current rules forbid sandblasting to remove lead based paints as it generates huge amounts of very fine particles that are very difficult to control or clean up.) The same applies to those who have worked with flake white or other lead based oil paints. The risks from lead paints and grounds are generating dust from sanding and getting the paint stuck under your fingernails and having it slowly wear off into your food. (Working with any of the lead based pigments as dry powders is inherently unsafe and requires proper personal protective equipment and rigorous cleanup.)

Let's hope the reader wasn't exposed. If she was, the lead has settled into her bones and would be leaching very slowly from her bones into her blood and out of her body. Since the source of lead exposure is long gone, the lead in her body is pretty much where it is going to stay, and any damage it might have done and might continue to do is done. If, however, she were to have anemia or bone problems, she should certainly mention the possible past exposure to her doctor. Also, since her body burden would be high, she should assiduously avoid future exposure.

Exposure to the stuff liberated from working with Formica: I don't even know how to look that one up. But, I'm willing to bet the answer, after so many years, is that the toxins have long left her body and that any damage is done.

The old telephone pole question was interesting. I believe that most old telephone poles and railroad ties were (and are still?) pressure treated with coal tar creosote which is pretty nasty stuff. And again, many of us were exposed to it before it was widely known that it was dangerous. I know I painted lots of fence posts with the smelly stuff. Creosote, like most coal tar based materials is a skin sensitizer, is reasonably suspected of being a human carcinogen, and causes skin cancer in test animals. Fresh creosote is even more dangerous as it can contain benzene.

And finally, is there no joy? The August 2001 issue of ACTS FACTS contains the articles "Bathtub & Lead Poisoning of Children" and "Bathtub Wine." Both are grim though hopefully rare. The poison source in both instances was lead based enamel glaze on old bathtubs. The children were poisoned by contact with a degrading glaze. The parents figured out the source by using a LeadCheck(r) swab. In the bathtub wine incident the lead was leached from the tub into the wine prior to bottling. In this case the poisoning was severe enough to cause personality changes, aggressive behavior, paranoia, severe short term memory loss, abdominal pain, and constipation. ACTS FACTS also pointed out additional sources of lead contamination in wine. These include "lead solder used to repair wine cases, passing wine through lead-containing outlet tubes on storage casks, various types of fermentation vats that contain lead, storage of spirits in lead crystal decanters, and lead foil on wine bottle closures."

So, it seems we can't even escape with 100% safety into a nice, warm bath with a glass of wine. Look up?

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