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| This article was originally published by SNAG as "The Metalsmith Papers" in 1981.
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Introduction to Goldsmithing Health Hazards
by Linda Weiss [The Metalsmith Papers - June 1978]
Recently, at metalsmithing workshops and conventions, I have heard various presentations about health hazards. The speakers are usually doctors or health science engineers, and I have not found their information adequate, understandable or applicable to the way a metalsmith works. The information usually covers too broad a range, the whole-field of the arts", and is too technical medically and chemically to put to use. Through my research, I have found that the solutions to the health hazards that the metalsmith encounters are not that complex. What is required is that the metalsmith recognize potential hazards and undertake reasonable hygiene and protective measures.
I do not presume to be a doctor or a health science engineer. All of the information presented here has been weeded out of various manuals and texts concerning health hazards in the arts and in industry- This information has been gathered from the sources listed in the bibliography. For a more thorough, authoritative understanding of body functions, systems and occupational disease, I recommend that the metalsmith seek out these resources. I will try to cover most of the potentially hazardous situations and materials that the metalsmith, or jeweler, would encounter in
Very little research has been done on the medical problems of artists as a direct result of occupational health hazards. Most research has been done for industrial-type situations. In many cases, industrial workers have greater volume of exposure but, in industry, there are better facilities to deal with these problems. Thus, most metalsmiths are frequently working under much more hazardous conditions than commonly found in industry. Their lack of concern is frequently due to lack of knowledge about health hazards and Safety precautions.
This points to one of the major dilemmas of the independent working metalsmith: locating pertinent, concise information about what materials are hazardous and alternatives for working with them safely. As part of their effort at Solving this problem, in all art media, the New York Chapter of the National Art Workers Community made the following five resolutions:
I feel that dissemination of information about health hazards throughout the art education system is very important. In this my, health and safety can become a work habit considered from the start, rather than added as an after-the-hazard afterthought.
The question of labeling is very important because if you don't know what's in a particular material, there's no way to know the potential hazards of working with it.
The main hazards most metalsmiths will encounter exist under the following circumstances:
Many metalsmiths compound their personal hazards (as well as those who sham their studio) by smoking cigarettes. Smoking makes ingestion of toxic sub stances easier, presents the danger of fire, and contributes to the total body burden of cumulative poisons. There has aim been increasing widows that inhalation of vapors from solvents may increase the risk of cancer much greater for cigarette smokers. Some other individuals who will probably be more susceptible to environmental and occupational contaminants am children, people with allergies, older people, and people with previously damaged organs (especially liver, heart and lungs).
Most of the substances that a metal smith will encounter do not pose immediate major danger. However, most of these substances are cumulative toxins and have a long-term effect. Doctors refer to this as chronic effect. The problem with this is that the symptoms do not occur at the time of exposure. They build up gradually until the body's tolerance of toxin is reached. This tolerance level will vary from person to person depending on
Most cumulative damage climaxes in around 20 years - that, for someone in their early twenties, could mean cancer at the age of forty.
Actually, I really don't intend this article to cause anxiety so much as caution. I hope this information will same other metalsmiths who are concerned about health and maintaining a safe working environment. The solutions that I offer for minimizing health hazards should be understood to be general guidelines and, of course, will probably have to be modified to fit wary individual's personal workshop conditions and working habits.
How Harmful Substances Enter and Affect the Body
The degree of toxicity is greatest by the route that the harmful substance takes to reach the bloodstream most rapidly. For metalsmiths, inhalation is the primary avenue for most toxins reaching the bloodstream. Skin contact is the next most important means, followed by ingestion. Almost all materials the metalsmith encounters have the potential to cause bodily harm. However, a toxic substance is not a health hazard until it is misused. The key is to know about these substances and to maintain a safe studio and healthy work habits.
The body is capable of coping with small doses of toxic materials. Almost every activity in daily life, and in the environment, brings us in contact with toxic substances. It is my opinion, from the research I have done, that the level of toxins in a private studio, academic studio and commercial studio are of high enough concentration to be given special consideration.
Such thoughts as "I'm only exposed to soldering fumes for twenty or thirty minutes each day" tells very little about the total assault on the lungs. We must also contend with solvent vapors, acid mists, kiln burnout, enamel fumes and abrasive particulates. If one recognizes the concept of multiple insults of different materials on the same organs, this false level of confidence is not justified. (Especially since so many of the toxins we come in contact with are cumulative.)
When irritants injure the lungs, it is usually something equivalent to a burn. As in response to any burn, the injured tissue will pour out fluid from the bloodstream. Fluid accumulation in the lungs interferes with oxygen exchange- This can lead to a type of suffocation called pulmonary edema. (Edema means swelling caused by fluid). If this is not fatal, there is usually permanent lung damage called pulmonary fibrosis (scarring).
Whether or not a substance gets beyond the lungs to affect the rest of the body depends on whether it is soluble in the blood.
Coke-oven workers have a high incidence of kidney cancer. So it is advised that blacksmiths who use coke for fuel have good exhause ventilation if their forge is maintained indoors.
The Nervous System
Substances that damage the skin directly are called primary irritants. These substances penetrate the outer layers of the skin and injure the underlying layers. In the case of primary irritants, all people exposed to the same concentrations of these substances will have identical skin irritation.
The skin irritation caused by direct contact with chemicals can look like any other form of dermatitis: pimples, sores, flakes, etc. But it always appears where direct contact with the substance occurs, and usually goes away when contact with the irritant has ended. Such dermatitis does not usually spread to other parts of the body.
Substances that aren't normally irritating may cause dermatitis if the skin develops an allergy to them. Once the body's immune system has "learned" to react against a substance this way, it will "remember" the reaction for years, even with infrequent contact with the irritating substance. In some cases, the reaction is no longer present. In other cases, the reaction will only re-occur when the body comes in contact with the original irritating substance, or a similar one at a later time.
Contact dermatitis or sensitization takes time to develop. It never occurs on the initial exposure to a new substance. Cases have been known where people would suddenly develop an allergic reaction to a substance they had been using for many years. However, when the skin develops a sensitivity to one substance, that does not necessarily increase the changes of becoming sensitive to another unrelated substance.
The following section has a list and a dictionary of harmful substances. In cases where alternatives are not offered, the reader may find safety measures covered in another section of this paper. If there is no safer alternative found elsewhere, it is because, in my research, there was none suggested. The reader may interpret this as he/she likes.
About this article:
This article was originally published by SNAG as series of research presentations, which was given at a SNAG Conference, during 1977-1980. Aided by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, they were published in 1981 as a single volume called, "The Metalsmith Papers". "Metalsmith Magazine" was being published concurrently.