Volume 13, Number 2, May 1991, pp.22-23

Health and Safety: An Unsound Mind in a Healthier Body

by Chris Stavroudis

I have been hearing voices for some time now. I think I've figured out where these disembodied phrases are coming from. I've decided that my liver and conscience have become vocal. Before I go back on my medication, let me share some of the things "me," "myself," and "I" have been talking about lately.

The drama personae in this little dialogue are "me," your column editor and mouthpiece for the trio. "I" is that quiet voice that we all hear: "Shouldn't you be wearing a respirator?" Which "me" answers with a standard, "yeah, but..." "I," methinks, is something between my ego and my conscience--perhaps common sense.

The third party in these musings, "myself," is my liver, a 4-pound organ nestled under my diaphragm that has a much better understanding of chemistry than "I." According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the liver is: "A large glandular organ in vertebrate animals, serving chiefly to secrete bile and to purify the venous blood." The liver, like a conservator, selectively renders undesirable things soluble.

The three of us have been discussing some of the things I do and don't do in my conservation studio. How does my profession affect "me" and "myself" and "I"? And how can I make what I do affect me less? I haven't done any research on the following thoughts, they are just the consensus of my fragmented personality.

I don't know how many other conservators use sticks, twigs, bamboo skewers, chopsticks or applicator sticks to roll their own swabs. I use bamboo skewers, the fatter ones.

I was quite surprised to find out how much solvent can be transported through the vessel structure of the bamboo skewer during use. So I sealed the handle end of the stick with shellac. Why was I surprised to find the swab stick got sticky when I used acetone or alcohols? While it did point out how readily the solvent moves up and through the bamboo, it was not quite the result "I" had in mind.

I have taken to sealing the handle end of the swab sticks I use for solvents with a clear, non-reversible material. There are many possibilities and ways to seal the end. The goal is to keep the swab end woody (so the cotton will grab) and the handle end dry. I like to color code the tip of the handle end with a marker and then infuse the handle portion of the swab stick with left-over Hxtal epoxy. Hxtal's low viscosity and slow cure allow for a very natural-feeling stick.

I hope that everyone uses some sort of swab receptacle to remove their soggy swabs from the end of their swab sticks. Some of the standard receptacles are: an empty soft-drink can (although you can't recycle the can after it is filled with disgusting cotton swab ends). Another is a glass jar with a metal screw-top lid in which a triangular hole has been punched. This is nice because the swabs can be emptied out by removing the lid.

The best swab receptacle I have heard of is a coffee can with a long slit cut in the plastic lid. The slit is self-closing, further minimizing solvent fumes getting into the air we breathe. The lid can be removed for emptying or for adding larger solvent soaked hanks of cotton or paper toweling.

And "I" (my conscience) demands to know where those swabs are emptied. Not just into the open trash in the studio, we trust. And how about those solvent bottles sitting open while in use. How much extra effort does it take to replace the lid between dips? "Yeah, but..." And what about pulling swabs off the stick with your fingers? Give your skin, blood system and liver a break today.

And "I" rails on. Do you bring food into the studio? Forget about attracting insects, or all of the other good reasons not to bring food into the work area. What about "you" and "yourself" (your liver)? Good for you if you never eat or drink in the studio. If you are not so virtuous, at least always think about what is sitting next to that steaming cup of coffee (maybe an open bottle of adhesive, maybe you are sanding an epoxy fill, or perhaps dusting an object which may have been treated with arsenic or lead salts). For beverages, an oriental-style mug (ceramic with ceramic lid) may minimize particles falling (and vapors partitioning) into your tea.

And what about those hands? Do you wash them with soap before eating? Good! What about before rubbing your eyes? Or before going to the bathroom? While some materials can invade the body through the skin, the easiest route of entry is through soft tissue protected by mucous membranes.

Hearing voices, eh? Let's try a little behavior modification. I have been thinking about what I routinely put in my mouth. One of the things I often found myself putting in my mouth (besides my foot) was swab sticks. You know--if the cotton won't grab onto the swab, just stick it in your mouth and try again. It never fails.

I still go nowhere without my salivary glands, but to dampen a swab or point a brush, I now lick the back of my left hand and use the second-hand spit (I do keep my hands clean). This may not be great advice, but it is far safer than putting the stick in the mouth--even for just a second. We assume that you never point a brush, new or used, in your mouth.

And what about spit cleaning Sure; we all do it. How clean is the cotton? Has it been sitting out in the spotless studio for only a few minutes? I use non-sterile cotton in the studio; it's cheaper and the shorter fibers don't particularly bother me. But I have just purchased a box of sterilized cotton, which is kept in a covered jar, which I use exclusively for spit cleaning.

As January 1, Greek, Russian and Chinese New Years have all passed--how about some late resolutions? When is the last time you checked your smoke detectors? How about replacing those batteries? Of course, it goes without saying that you do have smoke detectors both at home and at work.

How old are the cartridges in your respirator? Mine just turned 3-1/2 years. I don't know what's recommended, but that seems long enough, and I have just ordered replacements. What condition is the plastic bag in which you store your respirator? Mine was sieve-ish. I sprung for a new Zip-Loc bag. The plastic bag is important. The organic vapor cartridges don't particularly care if you are breathing the air that is passing through them, or if they are just grabbing any contaminants drifting their way.

With the advent of Richard Wolbers's new methods in the cleaning of paintings, I find myself using UV light examination even more frequently during a cleaning. Since we make our collective livings from our eyes, protection of our organs of sight should be a priority. Ultraviolet radiation damages the eye's lens and retina. Using an ultraviolet light in the dark tricks the iris into dilating, admitting lots of UV into the eye. (Incidentally, the same reasoning can be applied to sunglasses. Only sunglasses which filter the UV from the sunlight should ever be worn.)

In my fit of health consciousness, I added a couple of pairs of UV-absorbing goggles to my respirator cartridge order. Oddly enough, since mailing off that order, I have heard fewer complaints from my liver and common sense.

If you have been thinking about your health and safety, and have had any good ideas, let me know. Well, I've gotta go (back on my medication).

(Chris Stavroudis is a conservator in private practice.)

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