As conservators, we routinely use a host of chemicals, sometimes in ways that are unusual. As a result, it is important for us to take proper precautions at all times. However, as objects conservator Kerith Koss Schrager and industrial hygienist Julie Sobelman pointed out at this year’s annual meeting, we may not always do so. Since we are used to solving complex problems, we do not always seek out health and safety experts to interpret for us, even though they may be required. Much of our behavior around health and safety is learned by example, and we may make judgments based on personal experience. While we are always taught to prioritize the safety of the objects we treat, we may not always prioritize our own safety in the same way.
Kerith and Julie illustrated these issues using the example of cyclododecane. Cyclododecane is used in multiple areas of conservation, and while there are over 100 conservation publications mentioning it, few of these mention health and safety concerns. Most of conservators’ information about the chemical comes from the safety data sheet (SDS), which suggests that it is not hazardous. A survey of conservators found that roughly half of those surveyed did not believe it was safe, while 18% believed it was. The respondents based their answers on either the SDS or on hearing of other conservators using it. However, the SDS for cyclododecane is based on industrial use of the chemical, which is very different from the way conservators use it. In the case of cyclododecane, research is conflicting as to whether it is hazardous.
Rather than looking at just the SDS for a chemical before using it, Julie suggested consulting additional resources such as EPA Chemview and CDC/NIOSH International Chemical Safety Cards. If we have to use chemicals about which we are uncertain, using proper environmental controls and other protective equipment is important: using a fume hood does reduce exposure.
Julie and Kerith ended their presentation with a plea for conservators to create a culture where health and safety matters. As a newly fledged conservator who does oversee interns and volunteers, I left the room committed to making sure that those who share my lab have no reason to regret doing so.