National Press Photographers
Association Health Survey

'Migrant Mother', by Dorothea Lange (Wikipedia)

By Judy Tell, The Billings Gazette
Members of the NPPA (National Press Photographers Association) who answered the health survey conducted in January 1988 are "a healthy group of people" according to Charles Humble, a University of North Carolina doctoral student and co-author of the study.  Humble and his wife Victoria Freeman, who is also a doctoral student, presented the findings of the study at the American Public Health Association conference on technology in November.

More than 2000 members were sent the survey with questions ranging from lifestyle habits, photochemical exposure, use of personal protective equipment, and health issues.  "Those who responded generally have a pretty healthy lifestyle," Humble said, "For example, only about 10% of the males smoked, whereas the national average is about 25%.  The percentage of drinkers is about the same as the national average," he said.  More than 50% of those selected returned the survey.
"We will never know what the other 50% are like.  Smokers may be less likely to respond and more likely to be sick," he explained.  "Given the anecdotal reports of skin and respiratory problems, we wanted to find out what kinds of problems photojournalists experience."

Back pain was the most common complaint that photographers reported. "That finding is not so surprising," Freeman said "considering the fact that it is also the number one health complaint in the country," but photographers described carrying 40 lb camera bags, falling through the roof of buildings, and being bowled over by linebackers.  "There is obviously a lot more going on in the photographers’ lives than photochemicals," Freeman said.

Of the photographers, 23% to 28% reported skin rashes and dry, cracking skin.  A national survey based on physician examination found that one third of young adults have significant skin problems.  However, their findings were not limited to skin rashes and included other problems like acne.
A third group of common symptoms affecting the eyes, ears, nose, and throat ran somewhat higher than among the general population and included sinus and allergies, eye irritation, and tinnitus.  "There is no good comparison data, but for sinus infections the press photographers reported somewhat higher rates (than the general population), " Freeman reported.

Nervous system symptoms including excessive worry or anxiety, depression, and severe or recurrent headaches constitute another common group of complaints.  Comments by respondents noted that news photographers work in stressful situations and that this may explain some of these problems.  A large national survey estimates that 14.6% of the general population may experience anxiety disorders.  NPPA members report that 18.5% (men) and 24.1% (female) have ever experienced excessive worry or anxiety.  Severe or recurrent headaches were reported by twice as many women photographers as men and were higher than the reported U.S. prevalence of migraine headaches.      
Depression is reported less often with 11.9% of males having suffered episodes of depression and 18.2% of women.  Stomach ulcers also occur at a higher rate than in the general.  "These reports, along with reports of anxiety and headaches, make us wonder about the role of stress in the health of press photographers," Freeman said.

"These are problems that affect a sizeable proportion of press photographers, " Humble said, "and have implications for reporters and TV photo members."  He noted that "generally, women members report more symptoms than their male colleagues but this is often the case in health surveys.  What is impossible to know from our data is whether women actually do have more problems."
In compiling comparison data, Freeman said they concentrated on the age groups from 19-44 "because that is where 90% of our responses were from."  

61% of the respondents reported using tongs; 43% said they used aprons, and 16% said they used gloves.

Five respondents said they quit photojournalism because of the health problems they experienced.  More than 50 people said they had stopped using certain chemicals because of the problems they experienced.    

"We still consider darkroom chemicals something not to be taken lightly, and that the use of ventilation and protective equipment is probably prudent," Freeman said.  "In a survey like this, it is impossible to measure (chemical) exposure, " Freeman explained.  Future research should try to link exposure to outcome by physical examination, a long term health and exposure diary, and darkroom monitoring.

Pregnancy Outcome
The health survey also found that women photographers exposed to darkroom chemicals when they became pregnant reported a miscarriage rate of 18.6%.  Members who were not exposed to darkroom chemicals had a 9% miscarriage rate.  Freeman said that nearly 650 women reported 207 pregnancies in the survey that polled more than 1000 women, a return rate of about 60%.
Some surveys of American women have reported miscarriage rates of 10-20% but Freeman urges caution in interpreting the results of the NPPA survey.  "A 60% return rate is still not great," she said, "There is still a sizeable group of women that we don't know about.  It is one of the most difficult things to study because women don't always recognize an early pregnancy that ends in a loss."
Freeman added that she also analyzed the data by decade.  "In the 1980's, 21.6% of exposed pregnancies ended in miscarriage as did 31.5% of unexposed pregnancies."  Some researchers consider decade stratification a more reliable means of analyzing miscarriage rates because the subject has better recall of recent pregnancies and chemical exposures.

The study also found that 3.9% of exposed mothers went on to have children with low birth weights, compared with 4.2% of unexposed mothers.  "They are not having premature babies," Freeman said, possibly indicating a healthy lifestyle, good nutrition and prenatal care.
She said that analysis of birth defects from this survey is difficult since the sample was so small and birth defects are such a rare event.  However, there was nothing in the data to suggest that exposed women had a higher rate of malformations.

Freeman said she would urge expectant mothers to be "very cautious" in the darkroom and "try to minimize" their exposure to photochemicals and physical stress; however, she said she based that advice on common sense and not the findings of the survey.
This article was reprinted from News Photographer.

Art Hazard News, Volume 12, No. 5, 1989

This article was originally printed for Art Hazard News, © copyright Center for Safety in the Arts 1989. 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.