Hazardous Collections

From Wiki

Back to Health & Safety


Health & Safety Network Conservation Wiki

Copyright: 2021. The Health & Safety Wiki pages are a publication of the Health & Safety Network of the American Institute for Conservation.

Some of the information included on this wiki may be out of date, particularly with regard to toxicological data and regulatory standards. Also, because new information on safety issues is continually published, resources outside of AIC should be consulted for more specific information.

Contributors: Kerith Koss Schrager, Tara Kennedy, Kathryn Makos, Anne Kingery-Schwartz


Inherent and acquired hazards can be found throughout cultural institutions and their collections, posing a significant risk to caretakers and the public. Conservators should know how to identify and mitigate these risks.

General Information[edit | edit source]

A material is considered hazardous if it has the potential to:

  • Cause injury, illness, or death;
  • Cause damage to or loss of equipment, property or collections; or
  • Inhibit operations such as restricting access to storage cases.

Inherent Hazards[edit | edit source]

Collection items can be inherently hazardous by nature with the hazard either intentionally or unintentionally incorporated.

1. Nature/Design: Many objects are hazardous by nature or design, including those that are apparent such as sharp or heavy objects (physical hazards). Other hazards are often not apparent and may require specific knowledge about the collection. These include:

  • Toxic plants specimens
  • Mineral specimens that are heavy metals or radioactive, and
  • Chemical or medicinal sets


2. Deliberate Incorporation: Certain materials were deliberately incorporated into an object during production, in some cases to capitalize on properties related to their hazardous nature, such as munitions, including weaponry, rifles, hand grenades, or gun powder.

Hazardous material may have a particular property that is intrinsic to the function or value of the object. These hazards will become apparent once collection care research into the production techniques has been conducted. These include:

  • Luminous instrument dials painted with radium-based paint (see Radioactive Materials),
  • Silks with arsenic added to increase their weight for sale
  • Felt hats stiffened using mercury
  • Liquid mercury used for quick and accurate measurements in thermometers and gauges, and
  • Cadmium, lead and chrome-based pigments, for their durability and color.


3. Unintentional Incorporation: Sometimes, at the time of manufacture, the hazardous nature of the material was not known and has only become apparent through recent study and health assessments. Asbestos was added to art plasters and stuccos used for decorative works because it was cheap and plentiful. This kind of plaster was commonly used in exhibition dioramas or taxidermy mounts; Uranium was added to specialty glasses, cloisonné jewelry and certain glazes on Fiesta ware. These are often hidden hazards. For example, materials containing asbestos were widely used, rarely documented and difficult to identify by sight.

Acquired Hazards[edit | edit source]

Collection items can acquire hazardous properties through three main pathways:

1. Deterioration: Deterioration or damage can result in materials becoming more toxic or unstable. These processes are often unpredictable, can occur without any warning signs, and require more in-depth knowledge of collection and production techniques in order to identify. They also offer the best examples of when to consult local hazardous materials specialists.

The reflective surface on historic mirrors was created using tin and mercury. In good condition the mirroring is not hazardous, but once the deterioration process begins liquid mercury and vapor is released. County environmental protection agencies can assess this and contain and remove the mercury.

Nitrocellulose film becomes extremely flammable upon decay. If it’s unclear of how long this film has been stored, leave it and call the fire dept. They will always be happy to do this before, rather than after, a fire!

Other materials, which we discussed already that were hazardous by nature, can become even more dangerous as they deteriorate. Any movement or dismantling of asbestos art plaster can release airborne fibers. An abatement specialist is needed.

Medicinal and chemical collections can change with age creating highly reactive or explosive mixtures, or off-gassing toxic materials. If age or condition in unknown, call the fire department.

Some pigmented paints can powder over time and pose inhalation and ingestion hazards.

Ammunition can become unstable. For example, grenades form highly explosive peroxides as they degrade. Local police departments will safely remove old gunpowder horns and inspect old weaponry. They usually will safely remove the hazardous materials and return the collection object

2. Treatment: Objects can acquire toxicity through treatment. These kinds of hazards may require specialized knowledge to identify, since even if collection histories and technologies are known, historical and modern treatment techniques that have been applied may be unusual or undocumented. Especially if proper documentation or institutional knowledge is not available. Some clues may indicate that pesticide treatments, for example, have been applied. Some pesticides will leave residues or have a characteristic odor; some highly toxic organics like naphthalene (which is what is found in moth balls), will recrystallize on surfaces of objects and cases, providing inhalation hazards.

Mercuric salts used on botany mounting papers appear as gray-black-silver sheening, indicating that mercury vapor may linger in the storage cases. Many other pesticides such as arsenical compounds, are not obvious, yet leave harmful particulate residues that can be inhaled or ingested. Sometimes an organic object in perfect condition, when other objects have pest damage, is an indication of pesticide treatment.

When acquiring an item for a collection or working on a project, try obtain archival records of treatments. If the item is more modern, ask for Safety Data Sheets (formerly MSDSs) on the materials that were used to create the object. Acquired collections may be orphaned with little data or have incomplete records. In any of these situations, identification of treatment hazards will probably require specialized analytical testing and possibly the help of a health safety specialist.

3. Contamination: Objects can also acquire toxicity through environmental contamination. These hazards can sometimes be predicted such as [Mold|mold]] following a flood or leak. This category also includes fiber and dust contamination from storage or building materials like asbestos-containing insulation or plaster or lead paint used on walls and exhibitions. Specialized training is required for this even for minor cleanup of lead or asbestos. Debris from pest infestation such as carcasses, casings, frass and bird droppings can cause severe allergic reactions as well as certain lung disorders and bacterial infections. A pest mitigation specialist may be needed.

Hazard vs. Risk[edit | edit source]

Any given object may have one or more of these properties. A mirror may contain mercury, but it may also be heavy, awkward to carry, have broken glass or an insect infestation. Identification of hazards requires various levels of knowledge of the collection, environmental conditions, and production techniques. Having a hazard is not the same as knowing the health or safety risk--This is an important distinction!

Just because there is a hazardous object in the collection doesn’t mean it needs to be removed from the collection. A sharp shell is a hazard and a deteriorating mercury mirror is a hazard. Generally, more people feel comfortable handling the shell than the mirror, because it is a simple, common risk assessment.

A hazard is a material’s basic property (i.e, a shell is sharp, or mercury is toxic). Risk is the degree to which that hazard affects the body’s systems through illness or trauma. Understanding risk involves understanding how the hazardous condition is being worked with.

A highly hazardous material may not pose a high risk IF proper safety controls are in place. Also, workers have to be trained on how to use the controls AND actually use them. Inherent hazards may be difficult to change, but the risk from working with that hazard may be controlled. Risk can be reduced by either reducing the contaminant or by reducing the possibility of exposure. The risk can change for a specific material depending on several things:

1. Safety & handling protocols:Hazards can be controlled using handling techniques, thereby changing the risk. Formaldehyde, is a known human carcinogen and can be extremely hazardous if inhaled or absorbed through eyes, skin, or mucous membranes; however, with proper health and safety protocols any potential exposures to formaldehyde can be minimized. In the majority of cases, prudent health and safety measures can significantly reduce, if not eliminate risk. Personal Protective Equipment is a very effective means of reducing the risk associated with formaldehyde. Most collections won’t have large vats of formaldehyde. There may only be one or two jars of preserved specimens. But the handling protocols don’t change. Even if only topping off one specimen jar, the same procedures of local ventilation, a respirator (if there is not local venti0lation), gloves, careful handling and spill control materials just in case should still be used.

2. Use and quantity: In the case of vermilion or cinnabar, for example, the material is sulfide of mercury—so high hazard. It can be found as a mineral specimen, carved into decorative artifacts or ground up as a pigment or colorant. Mercury droplets actually form on the surface of the mineral specimen. In most paintings or as a colorant in Asian lacquers, it will be mixed with a binder. This reduces the risk—although it is still not entirely eliminated. Unless the surface is severely degraded or damaged, and with careful handling the likelihood of a painting containing vermillion affecting anyone’s health and safety is very low. It is higher risk when it is under-bound, deteriorated or as a carved or raw mineral specimen. Proper safety controls become more critical to controlling risk in these cases. So even if wearing gloves, be aware that the loose pigment or mercury droplets can easily be transferred from gloves to other surfaces.

Some items remain high risk no matter what precautions are taken when handling, because the high probability of the precautions failing. The rosary pea is made into jewelry in a variety of cultures, but contains a toxin which is similar to ricin and has the potential to cause total bodily system shut down—and is therefore extremely high hazard. Even with proper warning labels and safety protocols, rosary peas remain high risk--even the smallest exposure can cause severe illness or even death. In some cases, limiting access may be the only appropriate step in risk management.

3. Route of exposure: The rosary pea also demonstrates how understanding routes of exposure affects risk. The effects of the toxin in the rosary pea depends on whether it is breathed in, swallowed, or injected. The major signs and symptoms of poisoning depend on how someone was exposed—referred to as the route of exposure--AND how much they were exposed to (or the dose). Understanding how a hazard can have a health effect is essential for taking the appropriate preventative measures. Elemental mercury is primarily a concern when it is inhaled as a vapor--less than 1% of the total amount of liquid mercury is absorbed if held it in the hand or swallowed it. But if vapor is created by agitating the liquid, or using a vacuum to clean it up, 80% of inhaled mercury vapor is absorbed. Similarly, asbestos poses an inhalation risk, while lead is primarily hazardous via ingestion.

Resources[edit | edit source]

This tool will help you learn about commonly encountered health hazards found in some museum collections.
Panel members provided images and descriptions of hazards and outlined resources for devising methods for handling hazardous materials safely. Summaries of some of these situations are found in this article, along with answers to some of the questions that discussants found they had in common.


Managing Collection Hazards[edit | edit source]

Identification[edit | edit source]

Mitigation[edit | edit source]

Risk Management[edit | edit source]

Resources[edit | edit source]

  • Arsenic and Old Lace: Controlling Hazardous Collection Materials (Webinar) Presented by Kerith Koss Schrager, Kathy Makos and Anne-Kingery Schwartz. May 2016 (Watch Presentation)
A comprehensive presentation encompassing different types of collection hazards including pesticides, medicinal and pharmaceutical collections, radiation, and others. Presented to a wide audience on Connecting to Collections Care.
Presentation Slides
Presentation Notes
Resource Guide
Follow-up Q&A
The following procedures will help create a risk management plan for the safe handling of hazardous collection materials objects.
This short H&S article talks about HEPA and ULPA vacuum filtration for cleaning and managing hazards.
This article summarizes federal and state regulations applying to the disposal of hazardous materials, and how to safely dispose of chemicals and other toxic materials that conservators may encounter during treatment.

Types of Hazards[edit | edit source]

Asbestos[edit | edit source]

Common collection sources

  • Art plasters and stucco
  • Exhibition dioramas
  • Taxidermy mounts
  • Building materials
  • Historic gas masks and helmets
  • Mining safety lamps
  • Mineral collections


Identification

Health Effects

Protection

Mitigation

Resources

Article discussing different possible contaminants that could be found on collections recovered from disaster sites, such as the World Trade Center, and the health and safety precautions necessary to clean and treat them safely. Includes information about collections containing asbestos.
  • Understanding Asbestos in a Museum Environment Margaret Skimina, Associate Director for Environmental Health, Safety, and Fire Protection, Art Institute of Chicago and Peter Dennis, Vice President of Operations, Environmental Analysis, Inc. (Download Presentation)

Biological Hazards[edit | edit source]

Common collection sources

  • Bird, rodent, and insect excrement or carcasses
  • Mold
  • Microorganisms
  • Viral or bacterial contaminants

Identification

Health Effects

Protection

Mitigation

Resources

  • A Practical Guide for Work with Bird Droppings and Roosts (AIC News July 2003 (28:4) 17–20)

A short article to create awareness about microorganisms that a conservator may encounter in their work. Includes an extensive bibliography.

Botanical Collections[edit | edit source]

Numerous botanical specimens are inherently toxic. For information on hazards related to pest management of botanical collections see: Pesticides

Common collection sources:


Identification

Health Effects

Protection

Mitigation

Resources

Cellulose Nitrate[edit | edit source]

Common collection sources

Identification

Health Effects

Protection

Mitigation

Resources

Chemicals (Accessioned)[edit | edit source]

Common collection sources:

Identification

Health Effects

Protection

Mitigation

Resources

Fluid-Preserved Specimens[edit | edit source]

Common collection sources

Identification

Health Effects

Protection

Special storage and handling conditions may be required for fluid-preserved specimen collections including the need for: tightly sealed containers; special cabinetry; rooms of set volumes of liquid and fire-rated construction; fire detection and prevention devices; spill containment or run-off prevention; gravity or powered ventilation; perforated shelving to allow water or fire suppression liquids to pass through the full length of shelves; and much more depending on the amount of flammable liquid collections stored.

All jurisdictions may have a different interpretation of fire codes; therefore, consult the local Fire Marshall for the prevailing National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards regulating storage design for fluid-preserved collections. Ethanol and isopropanol are flammable liquids, addressed in NFPA Flammable and Combustible Liquids Code.

Mitigation:

Resources

Fluids in Machinery, Vehicles, and Batteries[edit | edit source]

Common collection sources

Identification

Health Effects

Protection

Mitigation

Resources

Heavy Metals[edit | edit source]

Common collection sources

Identification

Health Effects

Protection

Mitigation

Arsenic[edit | edit source]

Cadmium[edit | edit source]

Lead[edit | edit source]

Mercury[edit | edit source]

Resources[edit | edit source]

Comprehensive article concerning identification and handling of tin-mercury amalgam mirrors. Also provides information on elemental mercury clean-up, disposal, and mercury detection and spill supplies.
Extensive article defining heavy metals, detection methods, and health and safety considerations. Includes separate sections about mercury and arsine (arsenic gas).

Mold[edit | edit source]

Mold is a ubiquitous concern in conservation. Since mold is encountered frequently, it is important that conservators know the facts about it so that they can protect themselves.

See: Mold Health & Safety Topics on Mold Category Page

Resources[edit | edit source]

See: Mold Health & Safety Resources on Mold Category Page

Munitions[edit | edit source]

Common collection sources

Identification

Health Effects

Protection

Mitigation

Resources

An article outlining a case study of managing live ordnance response in a state institution. Provides practical tips on how to reduce the risk of creating static/sparks, safety precautions for the staff to take, and creating documentation of the ordnance, if it needs to be destroyed.

Organic Contaminants[edit | edit source]

Common collection sources

  • Pesticide Treatment Residues
  • Combustion/Pollution Contaminents
  • Mold myotoxins

Identification

Health Effects

Protection

Mitigation

Resources

Particulate Hazards[edit | edit source]

Common collection sources

  • Asbestos
  • Combustion/Pollution (soot, tobacco, lead residues from gasoline)
  • Construction Debris (concrete, dry wall, vitreous fibers/insulation, lead paint)
  • Infestation (insect and rodent droppings)
  • Storage Materials (silica gel)
  • Nanoparticles
  • Pesticides (arsenic salts, bendiocarb, borax, chlorpyrifos. diatomaceous earth, dichlorodiphenyltrichoroethane (DDT), Lindane, mercuric chloride, methoxychloride, naphthalene, orthodichlorobenzene, paradichlorobenzene, sodium aluminum fluorosilicate, sodium fluorosilicate
  • Pharmaceutical and Medicinal Collections (drugs, spices, aromatic oils, strychnine, Lindane)


Identification

Health Effects

The toxicity of particulates is dependent on a variety of factors including their composition and size. Particles that are approximately 10 microns or larger get trapped in the upper respiratory tract. While particles that are 5 microns or smaller can make it down to the lower lung where the gas exchange occurs in the alveoli; inhaled particles can become irritants, cause inflammatory reactions and/or be absorbed into the body.

Protection

Mitigation

Resources

Pesticides[edit | edit source]

Common collection sources

Identification

Health Effects

Protection

Mitigation

Resources

The following resources will help create a risk management plan for the safe handling of pesticide-contaminated objects. Contamination includes all current pesticide treatments, legacy hazards from historic treatments, and toxic elements inherent to the collection.
This resource guide is references listed in thirteen sub-categories, which are grouped into three broader sections. The first section consists of general pesticide resources, directories, references about pesticides and museums, and pesticide use history. The second section is references and resources pertaining to health, safety, and toxicology; legislation and regulatory information; and pesticide analysis and mitigation. The third section pertains to specific classes of pesticides, such as inorganic and organochlorine.

Pharmaceutical and Medicinal Collections[edit | edit source]

Historic pharmacy collections present a unique challenge for the conservators who are charged with maintaining them. Knowing what is in your collection, the various factors involved with keeping or disposing of a medical collection, and the disposal process itself is essential in maintaining historic pharmaceutical collections.

See: Pharmaceutical and Medicinal Collections

Physical Hazards[edit | edit source]

Collections that can cause physical harm include works that are heavy, sharp or breakable, awkward to carry, and/or flammable. These hazards are often very apparent, but the hazard is so often assumed they may be overlooked. For example, heavy objects stored high on shelves may seem stable but could become dislodged during an earthquake or be awkward or dangerous to handle on a ladder.

Radioactive Materials[edit | edit source]

Common collection sources


Identification

Health Effects

Protection

Mitigation

Resources

Cassia Balogh and Haddon Dine (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies)
This poster describes types of ionizing radiation and information about available measuring devices. It also includes results from a survey concerning use of monitoring equipment by conservators.
Cassia Balogh and Haddon Dine (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies)
This poster discusses the results of a survey concerning radioactive collections and general related information for reference, including safety precautions while working with radioactive collections.