High School Turpentine Exposure

By Angela Babin

A Northeastern Poison Control Center called inquiring about hazards and precautions for working with turpentine.  The Poison Control Center reported that one teacher and fourteen students in an upstate New York high school complained to the health office of headaches and fainting after a class. The high school has a population of about three thousand students. 

Twenty students in an oil painting class had been sharing five cans of turpentine, one can to a table, each about 1/3 full.  The windows were open, and a spray booth was turned on for ventilation. Interestingly, only two students from the actual painting classroom visited the school nurse, while the others reporting discomfort were students and the teacher from the home economics class located next door. 

This home economics classroom is between the art painting classroom and a cosmetology classroom that, at the time of the complaint, was doing their Friday clinic of permanent waving.  It seems that the ventilation system, which recirculated air throughout the school, is not designed for this type of exposure.  The fifteen individuals reporting symptoms showed no evidence of lasting exposure or chronic effects.

The principal suggested that the symptoms were due to the odors from the cosmetology and art classrooms, combined with a "low cloud coverage condition" causing a buildup of smoke and odor from home fireplaces of nearby residents.

While there is a possibility that the effects experienced by the home economics class could be the result of its central location and access to the multiple sources of pollution (as was suggested), the real problem is inadequate ventilation for the art classroom and other processes.  At the high school level, art, industrial arts, and other programs often introduce products containing hazardous ingredients without taking adequate precautions.  The following are some recommendations for the safe incorporation of procedures requiring special precaution:

Contaminated air from art and other classes should not be recirculated throughout the building.  The contaminated air should be completely exhausted to the outside. Unfortunately, as in this situation, recirculating contaminated air is common.

 In oil painting classrooms, there should be adequate dilution ventilation to exhaust the turpentine vapors to the outside.  The spray booth does not provide adequate dilution ventilation for this amount of turpentine being used. In fact, it would be very difficult to safely conduct an oil painting class with 20 students.

 There should be approval mechanisms for any activity that requires special precautions, such as the oil painting and the cosmetology class.  Standard procedures should be initiated to discuss and evaluate the hazards and safety precautions of art and other activities.
 In the case of accident or illness, there should be reporting and investigation procedures to ensure both careful analysis of the situation and the elimination of chances for repeated exposure.

Art Hazard News, Volume 11, No. 4, 1988

This article was originally printed for Art Hazard News, © copyright Center for Safety in the Arts 1988. 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.