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I came across this article today in Canada's The Globe and Mail and after re-reading some of LGM's posts on guitar finishing and safety, I figured this article might be of interest to some. I'll post the whole article because the link will not last long.

Suffering for art? Read this

Artists who think safety rules don't apply to them are learning that toxic materials damage their health and threaten their careers, writes JOHN ALLEMANG


Monday, March 7, 2005

Finding the perfect goggles and respirator weren't top priorities for sculptor Erika James when she attended art college in Vancouver a decade ago. But after just a few years of working with polyurethane resins in her home studio, she has been made dramatically aware that the creative impulse comes with toxic risks.

"I'm losing my eyesight," James says in a calm voice that belies her urgent concerns. "I want to have a long career as an artist, but I already know my health is deteriorating."

That combination of hope and anxiety led her to Toronto's Western Hospital recently, where she and dozens of other artists assembled for a seminar titled "How to Be an Artist -- and Not Kill Yourself in the Process."

Art is a risky enough way to make a living -- add in the solvents, acids, heavy metals and dust particles that are a standard part of the artist's work and you have a lifestyle that can be extremely hazardous to your health. What makes this day-to-day exposure even worse is the widespread ignorance or indifference of many working artists, and that's what led glassworker Mimi Gellman to help organize the seminar, in conjunction with the Artists' Health Centre Foundation and the visual-artists association CARFAC .

"Artists don't believe they're ever going to get old," she says, "and they don't believe anything can harm them."

Having herself endured the agonies of a hydrofluoric-acid burn while etching glass, she's keen to make her fellow artists at least acknowledge the dangers that lurk in the studio.

"If you don't have an awareness of the risks in your creative practice," she told her hospital audience, while a chorus of ambulance sirens wailed ominously in the background, "you're not going to have a very long career. I meet all kinds of artists who use solvents and can't figure out why they have bad eczema. Or people who work in a studio beside their bedroom and never have a break from their materials, and then can't understand why they feel bad."

And it's not just rashes and morning-after nausea -- visual artists appear to be more susceptible to lung disease, lead poisoning and bladder cancer. "The criminal thing about all this," said guest speaker Ted Rickard, manager of health and safety at the Ontario College of Art and Design, "is that people allow themselves to get into this situation without knowing the risks."

There's a long tradition of suffering for art, of course, but not all of the agonies are deliberately chosen. Rubens and Renoir were crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, and Paul Klee endured scleroderma. Researchers believe all three artists were exposed to extreme amounts of toxic heavy metals because their bright, bold paintings relied on pigments made with the likes of mercury sulphide, cadmium sulphide, lead, cobalt and manganese. (Duller earth tones are based on iron or carbon compounds and are much less harmful.)

Then there's van Gogh, whose unbalanced visions are not just the product of an artistic temperament. Rickard showed a detail of a van Gogh sky and pointed out the way the artist's light sources are surrounded by haloes. This is usually seen as the artistic effect that Japanese corporations pay many millions for, but it could also be the consequence of optic-nerve damage -- van Gogh was notoriously sloppy with his paints and used to eat paint, savouring its lead-based sweetness.

The eccentric van Gogh was not alone in ingesting paint -- many artists like to suck on their brushes to get a finer point for more detailed work. "You mustn't put your tools in your mouth," said Rickard, almost like he was talking to a kindergarten class. But the artists took his admonishments well -- bad personal habits, like eating in a workplace that happens to be filled with lead dust or storing nitric acid in old juice bottles, remain all too common in this largely unregulated profession.

"We now have a rule at the college," said Rickard, who almost lost a faculty member to a quenching sip of ferric nitrate. "If you're going to recycle a bottle, you have to strip off the original label, re-label it and, if necessary, add a skull and crossbones."

Artists aren't by nature fastidious rule-followers -- "anarchists" was one word Gellman used to describe her colleagues. "They think rules don't apply." Nonetheless, Rickard offered a few tips for a longer and healthier creative career:

Aerosol sprays are extremely flammable -- don't use them with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of your mouth.

If you work around dust, wear a good two-strap disposable mask -- otherwise it will get into your lungs and turn into cement.

Have your blood tested for lead if you find you're chronically depressed, irritable, dizzy, fatigued or suffering from aches in the stomach and throat. At OCAD, students who get pregnant are encouraged to take time off school so that their fetus isn't harmed by the lead in the workshops and studios.

Linseed oil can spontaneously combust -- if you're cleaning up a spill, wash out the rag afterward, or hang it up for a full week to dry rather than balling it up in the garbage where it could burst into flames.

A mouthful of turpentine can kill a child. Don't use it unless you're determined to emulate a 15th-century master.

If you're using rotary tools, beware of long hair, dangling sleeves, ties and hanging jewellery.

"I've seen students wearing pendants who lean forward to do their welding," said Rickard. "They don't realize how hot the pendant has become until they stand straight up. But thank God the bare-midriff look is out -- we're not getting nearly as many tummy burns."

After listening to Rickard's health and safety ideals, James decided she wasn't doing too badly. "I'm doing the best I can according to my finances," she said. "I can't go out and buy a $2,500 air purifier, but I have hooked up a bathroom fan in my studio."

With hopes of extending her career, she's now planning to shift from the more toxic resins toward more natural materials. But that's where she comes up against the artist's age-old problem. "I'm known for doing these big plastic installations. That's where my expertise lies, and it's difficult to move away from it."

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Good article and well worth paying attention to. I've known for years that "polyurethane resins" can definitely cause VERY serious health problems. Its used widely in finish paint on fibreglass yachts. It provides an extremely smooth, high gloss finished surface (ideal for coating a guitar) that is so hard you would think it might be bulletproof, :D . I've worked around the stuff and found it extremely difficult to sand because of its hardness. However, near the end of the job my boss took me aside and said that the stuff is a proven carcinogenic. He also said that the ONLY way you can prevent inhalation is with a self contained breathing system. It will pass thru ANY filter and don't let anyone try to tell you differently. Thats part of the reason why I asked to be "let go" shortly after my supervisor went on to another job (didn't like those other guys anyway). When they were shooting the boat with multiple coats of this poly based paint the ventilation sucked (actually, it DID NOT suck, that was the problem :D ) and the atmosphere was thick with the stuff. I wasn't sure if it was that time of year for my sinuses to act up or not but I decided to not take any chances. So make sure you educate yourself about proper safety measures and read the label!

Edited by Southpa
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Hey guys,

I'm 52. I started doning this stuff when I was 12. I worked for my grandfather, and my Dad had a small enclosed shop in his basement where I worked at nighton small stuff. I've done this stuff for a living up until seven years ago, and i still put in thirty or fourty hours a week. For the first Twenty five years i thought that I was bulletproof and invisible. I ddidn;t wear respirators and hardly wore a dust mask unless I was sanding Wengie or Walnut or something else really toxic. I practically bathed in lacquer thinner and the other neat solvents we use. Ahhh methylene di-cloride.

Today I use a mask and a respirator. Why? Because I have almost no feeling in my fingers and toes because of a phenomenon called peripheral delamination.

I have spots on both lungs that my doctor says are not happy spots.

Not lethal yet but not what he likes to see.

A lot of the nerve damage came from skin absorbtion from out of the air. I worked in an unventilated shop a lot at first.

I have had a lot of the guys I've been working with for my professional career start to die off in the last couple of years. Pancreatic cancer, lung cancer. Heart disease that has a component of chemical exposure.

Do yourrselfs a favor. Buy one of the beltpack forced air respirators. The folks who sell woodtuner's supplies, like Packard or Woodcraft or Rockler. sell 'em. Get the air moving with an explosion proof fan. Make a downdraft table for dsanding. The stuff we work on here is small enough that this is really feasable.

I'm hopig tht by changing how I do things that I may have bought myself another twenty or thirty years of banging on boards. Do the same.

It really bites trying to play the guitar with numb fingers.

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Doc is exactly right.

I work in chemical plants and refineries on the Houston ship channel to pay my bills and for all my guitar stuff. We have safety meetings EVERY morning, before starting work. When using chemicals, you can consult MSDS (material safety data sheets) that tell you everything you need to know, including hazards, personal protective equipment, how to clean up spills, etc. about pretty much any chemical. These can be accessed from the web. Just do a search for "MSDS" and you get all kinds of hits. I looked up "polyurethane" and got this:


SCBA is right (self contained breathing apparatus), SCUBA adds the U for underwater.

After years of attending these safety meetings, I'm somewhat brainwashed in a good way. I see woodworking tv shows where guys are sanding or sawing without safety glasses, and I cringe. AHH! Scary stuff, that DIY channel!

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Having herself endured the agonies of a hydrofluoric-acid burn

That stuff is lethal! HF is used extensively on diamond mines for cleaning the diamonds. After the warnings from the chemical guys I stay well away when working on the mines. It is extremely corrosive and a spill is emergency shutdown time and lots of shouting and screaming!

I'm surprised the authorities allow anyone, including companies like De Beers and especially untrained artists to even be allowed to have the stuff.


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I was sad to read about your medical condition, Doc. When I first started working 35 years ago, ( I am also 52 ), part of what I did was remove asbestos insulation to repair steam leaks. I know what you mean about thinking you're immortal when you're 18. The older journeymen blew off the warnings that were just coming out. Now, asbestos is right there with nuclear waste. I will heed your advice about ventalation and respirators.

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yea I have been routing with safety glasses but not a full on mask. I recently talked to my doctor and he said that saw dust was affecting my vision...

I have now bought goggles and a full on respirator... when you are crabby and feel sluggish after working on your guitars these are chemicals remember....

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Just something to add to this thread. When speaking of finishing guitars I've found that the higher quality material used the more noxious it gets. I shot automotive laquer clearcoat in my backyard and my neighbors remarked on the smell. Realize that if you can smell it then you are taking it in. I'm sure a few whiffs from 50 ft. away can't have any serious effects but I make sure my neighbor's kids are not in their yard before I start shooting my guitar.

I've also been around the work force for a few years. I've worked around all kinds of spray painting operations and other types of dangerous atmospheres. I've cleaned out crude oil, gasoline, motor oil and diesel tanks and have done high pressure water blasting at pulp mills and refineries during shutdowns. Most of the time we had to use a "J-MAR". Its basically a manifold that has air lines connected. The air lines go to our Scott-Air breathing masks. The J-mar was supplied by a compressor truck that fed us clean air from outside so we wouldn't be breathing in hydrogen sulphide, mercaptan gas and other nasty elements. Even when cleaning off refinery components like heat exchangers there was the danger of breathing in water mist containing paint and rust scale.

I've also worked around ammonia ice plants at fish offloading/processing facilities. When they do an ammonia dump you definitely don't want to be around. At the boat shop EVERYONE had a 3M respirator hanging around their neck. When I was painting apartments last summer a few of the spray painters did some work without respirators. They seem to have the idea that elastomeric latex paint is harmless. ANYTHING that is aspirated into the air can be potentially dangerous. The same goes with sanding stuff like fibreglass, fillers, wood, paint etc. with palm sanders and grinders.

Edited by Southpa
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About the only good thing I can say about ammonia systems is that if you have a leak in the system, you KNOW it. Hey, Southpa, my grand pa was a French Canadian southpaw. Claimed that he knocked out the Canadian middleweight champ in a barfight in 1919. I guess he never expected the left hook.

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Probably good to keep responding this just to keep up at the top of the board...

Because thanks to this article, I finally got serious about some safety equipment.

I replaced:

Dust mask with a respirator fitted with particle filters (I have a set of paint filters too)

Safety glasses with closed fitted antifog goggles that fit over my glasses

(I already had headphones)

Cost me 20 euros to add these (+ 20 euros for the respirator, and 15 euros for the headphones, but I've had those for a couple of years)

Using ordinary dust masks just made my glasses fog up, which becomes annoying when you're working with power tools. ...

I hadn't thought much about my eyes, until I read bigd's post, then I understood that yeah, I was getting too much dust in my eyes, they were bothering me at the end of the day.

Tested out my new system yesterday. Sure, I look silly, but it's much more comfortable working that way. The respirator mask DOES NOT FOG UP MY GLASSES! And that's a good thing.

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I hadn't thought much about my eyes, until I read bigd's post, then I understood that yeah, I was getting too much dust in my eyes, they were bothering me at the end of the day.

Sometimes you just can't avoid getting stuff in your eyes, unless you are wearing a scuba diving mask while working, :D . I occasionally use a product called "Optrex" which is a sterile eye wash. It helps float out any particles that might be irritating your eyes. It also helps ease the pain of flash burn (feels like your eyes are full of hot sand) from welding.

Edited by Southpa
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It also helps ease the pain of flash burn (feels like your eyes are full of hot sand) from welding.

Used tea bags are supposed to be good for that too. Dunno if it's true or if it's just a wives tail.

Just wanted to ask a quick question, are A1 organic filters any good for sawdust or just organic compounds? :D

I also understand what you are all on about thinking that you were indestructable when you were a teen. My potential basketball career is no more, so is my potential standing up without falling over career :D Should have listened to the doctor B) Stupid kid.

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I worked in a welding factory as a summer job for 4 months. It was only the last 2 weeks or so that I started wearing the supplied masks. There was only one other guy in our section who wore a mask, it was he who convinced me to wear one.

Before I started wearing them I would come home from work and blow my nose out. All this black stuff would come out. i was always thinkin what that stuff was doing to my lungs!! After I wore the mask there was very little or no black stuff.

It is very important to wear a mask.

When I sprayed my guitar about 2 months ago I sprayed poly out of an aerosol can. I was in an almost empty 20 x 20ft garage. I never wore a mask and kept the doors closed so that dust wouldn't blow in and ruin my work. I used about 2 to 3 cans of the stuff. Since then anytime I do any sort of physical exercise, like running, I hock up flem and I have a small cough. It is finally starting to go away, but if I am like this after 2 months after only spraying 3 cans I can't begin to imagine what you guys who have done it for years are like.

I have learned my lesson!

I'm also gonna start wearing safety goggles as well cause even though I wear specs dust can still get in my eyes.

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When I sprayed my guitar about 2 months ago I sprayed poly out of an aerosol can.  I was in an almost empty 20 x 20ft garage.  I never wore a mask and kept the doors closed so that dust wouldn't blow in and ruin my work.  I used about 2 to 3 cans of the stuff. 

Man, that's scary. Just reading that made my chest ache and my brain go all soggy.

Like I said, even while wearing the respirator, I tend to hold my breath and run out of the place as soon as I finished my coat. Hell, there's no reason to hang around anyway, is there?

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Hey, Idch, I guess the normal tendency is to stay and admire your paint job for a while, even though there's nothing you can do until it dries anyway. I have a huge exhaust fan in my booth, but I still get in and out as fast as I can. I'm sure my paint jobs may suffer from that, but c'est domage. ( Was that the right words? )

I guess I look at paint like cigarettes, no cigarettes are good for you, but two a day is better than two packs a day.

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The 3M masks aer great. They will filter out almost anything that you will encounter doing this work

Remember one thing though, and that is that these masks do not supply oxygen. They just filter out the bad stuff. You still need to move the bad air out and the good air in with an exhaust system. Also if you let the fumes build up you will get zero life from a set of filters.

There are cases of folks using a good masks who still die because they are using an unventilated basement shop and the fumes drive out all of the O2.

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