Volume 17, Number 2 .... May 1995

Health and Safety-Glossolalia

by Chris Stavroudis, Column Editor


I knew it all along. Something I have had a suspicion about for some time has been confirmed. I was correct, vindicated. People can develop extreme sensitivities to chemicals that they are routinely exposed to. I thought so. I've heard apocryphal stories, but I had not found corroboration until now. Well, I'm not surprised! Why am I so excited? Besides showing the IRS that I do use my CD-ROM thesaurus, I can now point to studies that show adults working with chemicals can suddenly develop debilitating allergic reactions to them. Nailed-it, spot-on, on the mark, on the money.

In the Nov. 21, 1994 issue of Newsweek, an article, run without a byline on page 81, discussed the increasing frequency of severe allergic reactions to latex. The allergy may affect 10-17% of health care workers. A nurse, less than a year on the job in an emergency room, noticed that her eyes itched and nose ran whenever she put on latex gloves. When exposed to a room full of people putting on gloves at the same time, she went into anaphylactic shock. After 10 days of recovery in hospital, she is now highly sensitive to latex. She can no longer work as a nurse, nor be in the presence of many everyday materials, including balloons.

The article goes on to explain that incidences of allergic reactions to latex have been increasing as health care workers are protecting themselves from bloodborne pathogens (HIV and hepatitis). One expert suggests that 10-17% of health care workers have developed latex allergies. Another test showed that 6.5% of 1000 samples of donated blood contained antibodies to latex. Children who have had numerous operations also appear likely to develop the allergy. The article notes that condoms are made of a highly purified latex and are less likely to provoke an immune response.

Why the pleonastic first paragraph? It shows how allergies can develop in adults in response to workplace materials. I have heard of a number of colleagues who have developed allergies to solvents, often after a project where they were excessively exposed. [In my own case, I developed a sensitivity to gasoline after too many hours working on cars as a teenager. Even today, when exposed to gasoline vapors when filling my car, any skin exposed to the rising vapor begins to itch and burn.]

What is the moral? As always, minimize your exposure to harmful materials. And if you do seem to be developing a sensitivity, take the symptoms seriously. If someone you supervise develops a sensitivity to a workplace material, take it very seriously. Discontinue exposure immediately. It seems that once a sensitivity manifests, it can very quickly develop into hypersensitivity. And that can be debilitating or even fatal.

Often when writing this column, I digress into personal and home safety issues. As I write, I've just sprung forward into daylight saving's time. I was expecting a big hoopla in the media about replacing your smoke detector batteries but it did not materialize. I guess it's "spring forward, fall back and check your batteries." But even if it is the wrong national event, you should at least check your smoke detectors--and replace your batteries if you didn't last season when you fell back.

Something you may not have thought about. When traveling, do you check fire escape routes when you check into a hotel? Although the event did not receive mention in the review of "Varnishes: Authenticity and Permanence," the hotel that a number of participants stayed in burned down during the conference. If you hadn't already heard about it, the good news is that no one was hurt, although one colleague lost all her luggage.

We were very lucky, however. The fire occurred mid-day while we were all at the conference. What I found most frightening was being lead upstairs to reclaim my luggage. The main staircase was burned-out so I was taken up the back stairway; the emergency exit. It was as circuitous as access to any museum conservation studio. I would never have found it if the fire had been at 2:00 in the morning, and it was dark, and there was smoke, and panic. And I had made a perfunctory glance at the map on the back of the door. Next time, however, I will follow the map and locate the escape. I would recommend you do the same.

Chris Stavroudis is a conservator in private practice.

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