Jan 2000 Volume 22 Number 2

Health and Safety

Of Hatha and Hypha

Longtime readers of this column (with little else in their lives to displace this bit of information from their memory) know I take yoga. And I take it fairly seriously.

Yoga is "in" right now. I understand my practice (Bikram's yoga) was recently written up in The Wall Street Journal. Media hype and forecasted earnings aside, any form of yoga, under properly trained supervision, is probably a good and healthy thing.

And, judging by how many conservators have taken up yoga, I think a strong case could be made that in general, yoga is well suited to the mental and physical demands placed on us by conservation.

The concentration, focus, and requisite relaxation are a good counterpoint to the somewhat obsessive and complex thought process that goes into a conservation treatment. Physically, the stretching and strengthening are undoubtedly welcome relief to our bodies after the contorted postures and foolish anti-ergonomics we all too often subject ourselves to in the name of art being longer than life.

This is not to take away from anyone's preferred form of exercise. A number of conservators swim seriously. And even if it is not yoga, any form of regular exercise is a very good thing for the body.

Should a discussion of the benefits of exercise be the subject of this column?

It turns out one of the semi regulars in my yoga class is Fee, the lead vocalist in the band The Tubes. Don't worry if it means nothing to you. Based on the responses I've received so far to this bit of information, unless you are: 1) a male; and 2) were in High School in the early 1970's, it won't mean much to you. (But as I am a male who was in High School in the early '70s, it was a big deal to me and I had to name drop.)

One of The Tubes' bigger hits was "What Do You Want From Life?"

So I'm asking, "What do you want from this column?" I'm running out of ideas.

I've always assumed you don't really want to know about regulations. Do you want to know more about issues that are not widely covered elsewhere, like exposure to phthalates? (See the January issue of Acts Facts for some more information.) Should we discuss the basics every now and then? Should I periodically revisit topics discussed a few years ago to jog long time WAAC members' memories and to let new members know what they missed by not joining sooner.

How about a cautionary tale?

My name is Kim Harper. Seven years ago, I was exposed to mold. I worked in a small Historical Museum where I managed the archival collection and, later, the operations of a twelve building museum village.

I absolutely loved my job working with artifacts and researching family history. Much of the archival collection was housed in a 100 year old school house. For several months I sorted through water damaged ledgers and artifacts. Many were covered with a black soot-like dust. After a few months, I noticed I was loosing my balance, my short-term memory was failing, and I began dropping things. Sometimes, it almost felt like I had been drinking. These symptoms led doctors to believe I had Multiple Sclerosis. My health was deteriorating rapidly.

My asthma which was previously mild, began to bother me daily. I was taking up to 14 doses of Ventolin a day at work. My asthma became so bad that after 10 months of working at the Museum, my doctor ordered a lung function test. This test showed my lung function had dropped almost 20%.

I went on to develop intense joint pain and fatigue. At first, I thought I was just coming down with the flu, but it never went away...never. This unusual flu-like illness caused confusion, extreme fatigue, and joint pain. I recall asking my board members to write down any requests because I would forget what they wanted by the time they left the building.

Slowly, I was forced to cut back extra volunteer work at the Museum. I left my Trustee position with the School Board and eventually, had to leave my part time job and finally my work at the Museum. I went on sick leave for two months. My asthma and cognitive symptoms improved almost 90%. But this all changed when I returned to work.

After two weeks back to work in the archives, my breathing, fatigue and joint pain began to worsen. I was asked to clean a damp 100 year old furnace room that had chronic water problems and mold. Within two months, my lung function had dropped another 20%. I was taking several pain medications to get through the work day and up to 20 puffs of Ventolin. After two severe asthma attacks where I could not breathe, I was forced to leave work permanently. I realize now, I should never have returned to work after my sick leave. Since starting work at the Museum three years earlier, my lung function had dropped at total of 36%. My lungs were working at only 44% capacity.

After leaving work, my asthma did not get better as it did with the first sick leave. Over the next year away from work, I spent many days in hospital to help my breathing. In order to stay out of the hospital, I was forced to take large doses of medication to manage even the simplest of tasks. Doctors prescribed 38 puffs of medication a day along with Prednisone.

I have never been well enough to return to work. You see we realized too late that work was causing my health problems. I now know that I should never have cleaned the old furnace room without proper protection.

My health has improved slightly since leaving the Museum. But without medication, my lungs are still bad. Since 1992 I have never been pain free. I have trouble managing daily activities and was forced to move from my two story home to a home with fewer stairs.

Mold is everywhere, but if you have to work with it, take a few extra minutes to learn about it and make educated choices to protect yourself. If workers are having problems, they should stop working in the contaminated environment immediately. I would encourage them to go to an Occupational Health Specialist experienced in the effects of mold. By knowing exactly what is making them sick, they can take necessary protective steps. You should know that some workers will never be able to work in a contaminated environment once thay have been sensitized. I only hope that everyone will understand a little protection and knowledge goes a long way.

We know many of us would never want to stop working in our exciting field. There is no need to panic, we just need to take a practical approach and take the time to get informed and protect ourselves. This way we can continue to work with the artifacts that we love so very much. Someone has to preserve our History.

If anyone would like to learn more, or would like to share their experience, they can contact the Harper Archives at mkharper@netcom.ca.

Regards, Kim Harper
Whitby, Ontario Canada

What do you want from life? Good health and a safe working environment!

Chris Stavroudis is a conservator in private practice

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