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Subject: Work related health problems

Work related health problems

From: Jane Ketcham <ketchamj>
Date: Friday, February 4, 1994
I would like to respond to Annie Armour's request for personal
experiences concerning work related health problems. It is a notoriously
difficult phenomenon to trace, but I have a feeling it may be a wide
spread problem in our profession. I am sending copies of this both
directly to Ms. Armour, and to the general Conservation DistList. in
hopes of eliciting further discussion on the issue.

I had a history of asthma and some food allergies since childhood, but
had no significant problems in my adult years. Because of my allergic
nature, however, I am probably more sensitive to environmental
contaminants. In 1985, I began working as the Conservator/Curator of an
Anthropology museum with collections (and building) dating back to the
19th century. The first winter I was at the museum, a humidification
system was in operation which drew steam directly from the central
heating system. I was not aware of any effects in the beginning. By the
second winter, however, I could not enter the collections storage room
without my eyes watering, and my throat stinging to the point that I had
to leave. To me, the room smelled of dead fish, but no one else seemed
to be affected, and no one else said they could smell anything odd.
Wondering all the while, "Is it me, or is it them?", I pursued the issue
with the physical plant office. After many go arounds, they admitted
that they may have added a bit too much of the regular boiler water
treatment compounds--various amine derivatives designed to prevent
corrosion in the piping. I contacted a local water treatment supply
company, whose representative said that the type of compounds being used
should "never be used in an open system", ie. one where the steam is
discharged into the air. I also spoke with Michael McCann at the Art
Hazards Information Center in New York. He said that he was suspicious
of these boiler treatment compounds, but that so far they were
considered safe--not because they had been proved safe, but that testing
had never been carried out.

As I was the only one concerned with the humidification or
non-humidification of the collections anyway, I chose to turn the steam
humidification off, and relied on portable humidifiers afterward. Since
that time, however, I have had increasing difficulties with chronic
asthma, and additional allergies to a variety of foods. I have heard
that a process of "sensitization" can occur, where initial exposure to a
single destructive agent can cause a sensitive individual to be more
prone to developing new allergic reactions subsequently.

I cannot "prove" that exposure to the boiler treatment chemicals caused
an increase in my allergic responses. As far as the government (or
lawyers) are concerned, these chemicals are "safe". The resistance I
encountered in trying to deal with the problem also had me feeling like
quite the hypochondriac. God knows there are plenty of other materials
floating around in an ancient museum full of dead things that might
cause similar reactions, such as mold, dust, and pesticides.

I have recently left my position at the museum, and I cannot say that my
symptoms have noticeably improved. I am learning better how to deal with
them, however. I cannot help feeling that there are more hazards to our
chosen occupation than most of us realize, or bargained for.

Best wishes to all. "Be careful out there."

Jane Ketcham
Conservator at Loose Ends, formerly of the
Logan Museum of Anthropology

                  Conservation DistList Instance 7:58
                Distributed: Thursday, February 10, 1994
                        Message Id: cdl-7-58-008
Received on Friday, 4 February, 1994

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