by Kirby Lindsay
Dave Waddell, Coordinator for the King County Art Chemical Hazards Project (which will grant prize money for a new name and logo), spent last year researching and reading about art supplies, and the chemical compounds they contain. Now he credibly rattles off information on copper sulfates, methylene chloride, xylene, hexane, toluene, etc.
For the better health of artists, their families/housemates, and everyone in our region, Waddell would like to meet with groups of artists, or those working with art supplies, and explain the different hazards in some common products. Some, he explained, cause acute harm, like Drano – which, splashed in the eyes and not immediately flushed, will cause blindness. Other products create chronic problems, like lead. Exposure results in lead being absorbed in the body, and causing complications during other health problems, or pregnancy.
From Science To Art
Waddell can visit an artists’ work space or studio, to evaluate the settings, storage and use of products – and assist in identifying potential hazards, and improvements. During a visit with professional artist (and car-tist) Kelly Lyles, the subject turned to the adhesive lexel.
Waddell researched the product and found three types of lexel - clear, white and VOC compliant. The clear and the white are toxic and flammable. The VOC compliant also is flammable, but it can be used in California, since it doesn’t give off the same fumes…although it contains dry cleaner fluid, a known carcinogen. As Waddell explained, the VOC compliant “causes cancer, but does not cause smog.”
Waddell brings experience to this latest project. For 12 years he worked on ‘Rehab The Lab’. From 1999 – 2002, that program reviewed science labs in middle and high schools around the county – and found tens of thousands of out-of-date, toxic and incendiary chemicals stored in our schools.
Twisting the cap off 250 milligrams of an old, crystallized chemical can deliver the friction need for the chemical to explode. In his explorations, a few times Waddell called in the bomb squad to properly dispose of materials. In Florida, under a similar program, the bomb squad detonated a chemical in a school yard, and created a huge fire ball.
In fact, buying less, and not storing products, can be best for everyone. The King County Local Hazardous Waste Management Program offices have an informative display of some items found during science lab reviews. Waddell pointed to a box label that said, ‘something pickled & dead,’ and retorted, “better than pickled and alive, I guess.” A photo shows a bottle labeled, ‘5% water’ above a skull and crossbones – without further information. Another bottle was marked, ‘methol something,’ and, finally, one that said, ‘Acid Be Careful’ above a smiley face.
Toxic, Caustic, But Not Incendiary
In 2007, Rehab the Lab staff returned to check out the schools for improvement (Waddell reported that the teachers had done a great job and got the idea.) While there, they also saw a few of the art departments - and discovered they’d missed a huge area of potential harm.
According to Waddell, art departments rarely pose the same explosive risks of science departments (although he has called in the bomb squad to two artists’ studios.) Yet, he found glazes converted into hazardous powders, corrosive, flammable, and toxic solvents, plus “lead everywhere.” As he explained, “the criteria the public use,” to determine the harmfulness of a product, “is not accurate.”
As example, for cleaning, acetone is flammable and smells – so most artists consider it harmful, while methylene chloride is not flammable and does not smell. Both are volatile and, on contact with skin, will cause itching and flaking. However, acetone can make you ill only if ingested, while methylene chloride use will cause cancer.
Clearing Up Confusion
“My job is to explain complicated things,” Waddell summarized, “in ways that people can address.” To make a decisions on which product to buy, and avoid, and how to store it (or not), can be as simple as asking. He wants, “to change people’s behavior, without seeming like a bully.”
“For most artists, the exposure they get is avoidable,” Waddell said, but also, “a lot of artists are being overly cautious.” Proper, safe use of most products, he advised, requires work be done with clean air behind the body, the project done directly in front at arm’s length and ventilation that draws fumes and dust away in front – while wearing gloves.
Dispose of all leftover products at one of four Hazardous Waste sites in King County, for free. Questions on what they take, and when, can be made to the Household Hazards line at 206/296-4692. Businesses (professional artists) can call the Business Waste line at 206/263-8899, to dispose of their products in the same place by appointment.
Waddell can go to studios, but he wants to address large crowds to better leverage the information he’s collected. For the safety of everyone, especially all individuals that create art, contact him today by e-mail, or visit the website, to find out about how to make safer art for all.
©2010 Kirby Lindsay. This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Reproduction, adaptation or distribution without permission is prohibited.