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July 2006

July, 2006: Mischief

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Columns

  • Wombat Droppings:
    Doing Conventions
  • Myths and Symbols:
    Heraldry, Pt 3: Charges
  • Healthy Green Artists:
    Air
  • Behind the Art:
    Designing New Characters
  • EMG News:
    July, 2006: Mischief

    Features

  • Handling Art Theft Gracefully
  • Fixing Common Ink Jet Printer Errors

    Fiction

  • Fiction: Bathing Beauty
  • Fiction: Knots in My Hair
  • Poem: Creep! Creeping!

    Reviews

  • Movie: X-Men III: The Last Stand


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  • Air
    Healthy Green Artists
    by Janet Chui

    When I was 14, before Adobe Photoshop existed, I had an honest-to-god, real, hold-in-your-hand airbrush. Compressed air traveled through tubes from cans, into the airbrush, and propelled paint onto paper. The airbrush (actually, to be really honest, it was closer to an airgun) had its paint fed from a small glass jar you attached to the bottom of the brush, and the jar didn't hold very much. If I was feeling very ambitious, the smooth gradated skies I was airbrushing (in acrylic inks) needed multiple refills of paint, and this I did, working with my nose two feet from my canvas, the airgun 12 inches away, and all without wearing a mask over my face.

    The Current Me still wants to give the Old Me a smack upside the head.

    I think few of us now work with bona fide airbrushes anymore (unless you're airbrushing Harleys) so I need hardly tell anyone to wear a mask over your nose and mouth while you're working with flying paint particles of plastic. Ventilation is covered very comprehensively in artists' help books (and on product packaging), especially in regards to working with noxious materials like masking fluid, solvents, or fixatives. A studio ventilation system can be rigged pretty cheaply by purchasing two electric fans (the square boxy ones common to college dorms) and using one for air intake and one for outtake.

    But it's not to say that those who don't need to work with masking fluid, solvents, or fixatives don't need to worry about the air inside their studio. And even as we think about the car exhaust, construction dust, allergens, and dust in the air outside our homes, people still underestimate the impact of indoor air on their health, especially considering most of us spend 90% of our time indoors. Two to 100 times more air pollutants can be found indoors than outdoors, and if you're working in a building that is closed, "tight", or energy efficient, well, I really recommend opening some windows in the room right now before you read on.

    Back yet? OK.

    Outgassing (or sometimes, offgassing) refers to the release of airborne particles that were previouly trapped, frozen, or absorbed in a material (with thanks to Wikipedia for this definition). Outgassing can happen without a material reaching its boiling point, though heat (and hot weather) does speed the process.

    Before we get to what chemicals are typically outgassed in a home or office (or studio) and what effects those chemicals have on your health, let's get you properly frightened by listing some of the objects in your room currently outgassing:

    Your computer and computer monitor (don't chuck them out until you finish reading this issue of EMG-Zine)
    Your desk, especially if it's made from pressed wood and/or newer than 8 years
    Your padded desk chair
    Your printer
    Your carpet or vinyl flooring
    Your air freshener, nail polish, or perfume
    Any cleaners or detergents used on your furniture or windows
    Any writing or art implements featuring "permanent" ink
    Any drycleaned clothing
    The mothballs in your closet
    Your wall and floor insulation
    Any acrylic or plexiglass art or framing materials
    Foamcore (I'm groaning at this too, believe me)

    Formaldehyde--it's not just for embalming. Exposure to this toxic and potentially carcinogenic substance can cause symptoms similar to that from colds, flu, and allergies, which should be of interest if this is a chronic problem for you; it irritates any living tissue with which it comes into contact. In suburban areas, you may be exposed to about 2-6 parts per billion of formaldehyde. If you live in a heavily populated or heavily industrial area, you may be exposed to 10-20 ppb. Take note that formaldehyde concentrations can be up to 10 times higher indoors than outdoors. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) states that formaldehyde is an irritant at 0.4-3 parts per million, so accidental exposure to this level depending on your indoor situation is entirely possible.

    Formaldehyde is used (and is outgassed from): furniture made with pressed wood like particle board, plywood and medium-density fiberboard (MDF); urea-formaldehyde foam wall insulation (UFFI); permanent press fabric and fabrics with anti-cling, anti-static, anti-wrinkle, anti-shrink, waterproof and/or mildew-resistent finishes; paper adhesives with waterproof, grease- and shrink-resistant properties; personal toiletries and cosmetics; tobacco smoke; paints and coatings; and household cleansers, disinfectants and polishes. Frequent or prolonged exposure may cause hypersensitivity and lead to allergic contact dermatitis. Long-term exposure to high concentrations has been found to cause nose and throat cancers.

    Next, computers outgas small amounts of plasticizers and solvents used in the plastic casing, wiring, and circuit boards when they are turned on and get warm. New computer monitors and any new electronics are especially responsible--alarm bells should ring everytime you detect that "new car smell"! Short-term symptoms of exposure include drowsiness, eye and throat irritation, headaches, and that "spaced out" feeling. That smell is made of a combination of PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) and phthalate plasticizers (which have been covered before in my column on plastics).

    We're exposed to PBDEs through dust, food, and air. It accumulates in our bodies, and the levels of PBDEs in people are doubling every 2 to 5 years. According to E-Magazine, PBDE concentrations in the breast milk of American women are 10 to 100 times higher than in Europe, where laws have been enacted phasing out the chemicals from several categories of consumer products. In experiments with lab animals, PBDE exposure was found to cause problems with brain development, memory, learning and behavior. It can cause thyroid problems and affect reproduction (again, as shown in lab tests so far). The chemical structure of PBDEs is similar to that of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were banned in the US in 1976.

    In Growing Threats: Toxic Flame Retardants and Children's Health, the SF Chronicle in 2003 pointed out that:

    ... Various studies have found dramatically increasing numbers of children with developmental, learning, and behavior disorders over the last decade, including attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and autism. While it is usually impossible to connect [PBDE] to a broad health trend, the National Academy of Sciences recently estimated that toxic exposures play a role in as many as 1 in 4 cases of developmental disorders. Toxic flame retardants could be joining lead, mercury, and PCBs among the chemicals responsible for harming children's health and development.

    Besides new electronics, the other culprits that are outgassing PBDEs are fabrics and soft furnishings treated with flame-retardants, and certain kinds of wall insulation. It is also found in household dust now, and a 2004 study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and by the Environmental Working Group found that avoiding the chemical is now nigh impossible in our homes. The most anyone can do is minimise its presence by being cognizant of what products we can avoid that contain PBDEs. New electronics can be aired out by placing them in a well ventilated, low-trafficked area of the home/office before general use.

    Benzene is a carcinogen used in the manufacture of plastics, dyes, some detergents, furniture wax, rubber, and shoes, to name a few. Constant exposure to benzene causes anemia, psychological problems, drowsiness, loss of appetite, and headaches. In some women, long-term exposure to high levels of benzene in the air can cause irregular menstrual periods and a decrease in the size of the ovaries. Benzene can also cause various types of leukemia, lymphoma, and blood diseases. This chemical occurs both naturally and in industrial processes--house painters are among those who should be wary of benzene exposure.

    People with MCS (or multiple chemical sensitivity) have found it helps greatly to reduce their indoor exposure to formaldehyde, PBDE, and plasticizers, and there is even growing attention to how fibromyalgia and MCS may be related. FM especially can have its dietary, hormonal, and environmental triggers; it may be worth it to investigate the effects of minimising one's exposure to chlorine (also covered previously with regards to paper) and petrochemical personal and household products. And I regret that exploring the indoor exposure rates and effects of Acetonitrile, methyl methacrylate, styrene, aliphatic hydrocarbons, ketones, alkenes, and esters is outside the scope of this column, but suffice it to say, one should think and research more carefully when buying any new furniture, air fresheners, housepaint, or cosmetics if you suspect you may be especially sensitive to some of these chemicals.

    Outside of removing sources of harmful chemicals from our home and workspaces, most of us right now probably have little control over the materials in/on our wall or floors, short of moving or building a new place made with green building materials. Until then, the only thing left to do is to purchase a safe air cleaner or air purifer (not all of them are equal) or better still, some indoor house plants.

    So, this column ends on a happy note. If you have the urge to run outdoors after reading this column, consider running to buy some houseplants for cleaning your air. For plants, no electricity or replacement parts are required, and they do not produce irritating ozone (which an ionizing air purifier will do). Plants can clean up to 87% of indoor air pollutants. (A few of the most effective plants are: Dracaenas, palms, ferns, English Ivy, peace lilies, mums and daisies, and spider plants.) Some soil microbes feed on formaldehyde, benzene, and tetrachloride and will eliminate them from your air altogether. So breathe easily now: clean indoor air isn't only achievable with a $800.00 air purifier or by living in a tent in the forest!

    If you're interested in more information about the chemicals in your home, feel free to visit the EMG Forum and I can share my links and recommended books on this topic there.

    Janet Chui
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