Lead (Wikipedia) | Richard Serra, Lead Splashing, 1968
By Angela Babin, M.S.
Despite all the concern about lead poisoning, we are still seeing lead widely used in art - and we are still seeing lead poisoning cases in artists, children, hobbyists, elderly, etc. We have heard of cases of lead poisoning in people working in stained glass, painting, ceramics, enameling, and restoration of old houses, and those are only the cases when we were contacted. How many more cases of lead poisoning are out there? Lead poisoning in children is still one of the top public health concerns.
The actual definition of "lead poisoning" has significantly changed over the past ten or so years. Prior to the late 1970s, a person wasn't considered to have lead poisoning unless his or her blood lead level was over 80 micrograms ( microg)/ deciliters (dL) of blood. (1 DL = 100 milliliters). The OSHA lead standard of 1978 set a limit of 60 microg/dL of blood for occupational exposure to lead, in the recognition that the old levels were too high. At a blood lead level of 60, a worker would be removed from lead exposure and not allowed back until his or her blood lead level was below 40. Even that level was recognized as not being safe for pregnant women and children, and blood lead levels of 30 microg/dL were suggested as being safe.
In a recent article in the American Journal of Public Health, Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, Professor and Chairman of the Department of Community Medicine of Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City, and well-known lead expert, recommended even lower levels. Dr. Landrigan advocates removing workers from the workplace if their blood lead level is over 20 microg/dL, and not letting them back until the blood lead has fallen to 10 microg/dL.
While ten years ago, the average blood lead of the U.S. population was 15-20, the average blood lead now for the U.S. population has dropped below 10 microg/dL of blood. This is due primarily to mandatory cuts in leaded gasoline. A good suggestion for adult artists is that if your blood lead level is over 20 microg/dL you should investigate your work materials and environment to pinpoint and reduce this lead exposure.
Children are particularly susceptible to hazards from lead because their bones are still growing and their metabolism is faster. Children should not use lead-containing art materials.
Children can be exposed to lead though accidental ingestion of lead, or if they come into contact with their parents' work clothes, shoes, or unprotected hair, or if they are allowed to play in a studio that has lead dust or fumes. For example, a case of increased lead absorption and poisoning in a potter and her family was reported in Volume 91(7) 1991 of the New York State Journal of Medicine. The 35-year old potter and her daughter manifested significantly elevated blood lead level concentrations of 48 and 54 microg/dL respectively.
The mother mixed and used nonfritted lead glazes, and also air-brushed glazes containing fritted lead onto ceramic tiles. The studio was in the living loft, and there were no housekeeping controls or spraybooth. While the studio was separated by a plastic curtain, the patient's 5-year old daughter was often present in the studio, and in fact had recently started to spend more time in the studio, sometimes touching glazes and painting her own pottery. The girl was given a paper face mask for protection. This case illustrates the ongoing problem of safety in the home studio.
In particular, central nervous system (CNS) effects have been shown to be very serious in young children. These effects include attention deficit syndrome, slower learning, lowered scoring on I.Q. tests, and language disabilities.
Both men and women are susceptible to hazardous reproductive effects from lead. Lead is a teratogen, and exposure can increase the risk of miscarriages and spontaneous abortions. When a pregnant woman absorbs, inhales, or ingests lead, lead can circulate through her bloodstream and pass through the placenta to the fetus. Lead exposure is also dangerous for the pregnant woman because during pregnancy, there is an increased demand for calcium. Lead can accumulate and actually replace the needed calcium that is stored in the bones.
For men, the most critical time is the period before conception, as during this time sperm are being developed. It has been noted that male workers exposed to high levels of lead have exhibited loss of sex drive, atrophy of testes, and decreased fertility.
For centuries we have known that lead caused anemia, gastrointestinal problems ("painter's colic"), brain damage, peripheral nerve damage ("wrist drop"), kidney damage, birth defects, miscarriages, and sterility.
Research over the last decade, however, has demonstrated that lead can cause toxic effects at blood lead levels previously thought to be safe. Often there are no apparent symptoms. This "subclinical toxicity" includes inhibition of enzymes making heme (a component of hemoglobin), delayed blood regeneration, impairment of the function of kidney tubular cells, hypertension, inhibition of sperm formation, slowing of nerve conduction velocities, and central nervous system problems.
Recent Legislative Efforts
CDC Lead Exposure Levels
In 1992, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published more restrictive guidelines for childhood lead poisoning, as well as new intervention levels. The previous intervention level, set in 1985, was 25 microg/dL. The CDC now has a whole new series of levels at which certain specific actions are recommended. This "multi-tier" approach is as follows:
Lead Level Recommendations
The CDC is recommending action at lead levels much lower than before. Copies of this statement can be requested from: Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch, National Center Environmental Health and Injury Control, Mailstop F-29, 1600 Clifton Rd., NE, Atlanta, GA 30333.
Lead Exposure Reduction Bill
As proposed in the Lead Exposure Reduction Bill of 1990, which has not yet been passed, there were detailed restrictions on the uses of specific lead-containing products. Products used in the arts were recognized formally in these recommendations.
Allowable lead contents included:
Product Lead Content (%) by Dry Weight
- Paint 0.06 %
- Solder 0.1 %
- Plastic Additives 2.0 %
- Printing Inks or Pigments 2.0 %
- Plumming Fittings % 2.0
- Pesticides 0.1 %
- Construction materials 0.1 %
- Fertilizers 0.1 %
- Glazes, Enamels and Frits 0.06 %
- Toy and recreational Game Pieces 0.1 %
- Curtain Weights 0.1 %
- Fishing Weights 0.1 %
- Stained Glass Came 0.1 %
- Wine Bottle Foils 0.1 %
1991 FDA Lead Levels
In 1971, the FDA set informal guidelines for levels of lead leaching from ceramic ware products. These levels were tightened in 1979. They are now further reduced because new information shows that lead can adversely affect the fetus, young children, and adults in amounts well below those previously believed harmful.
The new guideline levels for lead leaching from ceramic ware are:
The amount of lead leaching from the pieces is measured in a standard test involving 24-hour contact of the piece with an acid solution.
LEAD IN THE ARTS
Many questions to the Art Hazards Information Center focus on various ways in which artists, hobbyists and even children are using lead in artistic processes. In general, we recommend against using lead-based art materials in any process. The following list highlights the main usages.
Use a NIOSH-approved toxic dust respirator for mixing lead frits. Wet mop and wipe surfaces after work.
Glassblowing and Glasswork
Metalworking and Jewelry
The Engelhard Corporation has recently formulated Silvabrite 100, free of lead, zinc and antimony. Call the Engelhard Corporation at: (732) 205-5000 for more information, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Restoration and Conservation
General Environmental Concerns
The following is a list of several lead-test kits. The prices vary from about $25-$35.
Volume 17, No. 5, 1994
This article was originally printed for Art Hazard News, © copyright Center for Safety in the Arts 1994. It appears on nontoxicprint courtesy of the Health in the Arts Program, University of Illinois at Chicago, who have curated a collection of these articles from their archive which are still relevant to artists today.