A bit of an "aside." I've had the unpleasant experience of listening to several heated discussions on Facebook about lead safety. I've had multiple intelligent friends speak to me about concerns about their glasswork and non-glass friends worried about my health and safety.
I am impressionable when it comes to medical matters, so a heated discussion on a wonderful Facebook group for glass artists left me a bit paranoid. At the time I spent a bit of money to build a better ventilation system, researched lead safety extensively, and discussed it with everyone I knew. I had been made to believe, however briefly, that my love of glass was killing all of my loved ones who set foot in my house.
Not happening. Today's post is going to cover some lead safety "Fact or Crap" items.
The big Fact:
The significant threat is ingestion, not inhalation.
Think of lead much like water. Is ice contributing to the humidity of
your air (are you inhaling it?) Yes, technically. A tiny portion of
the ice can sublimate straight into water vapor. But it's so little it's insignificant. Is liquid water sitting in a glass adding to your
humidity? Yes, very slowly. If you want to raise the humidity in a room,
how do you do it? A pot of boiling water works much better. Lead is
little different... actually, MORE difficult than water.
melts at 621.43 (°F). At that point it's equivalent to liquid water (as
far as our inhalation of it). Lead doesn't boil until 3180 °F. We are
quickly melting it and it cools and resolidifies. You aren't at a risk
of inhaling lead fumes unless you are smelting it. If you solder and you
see fumes/smoke fly in the air that is not solder, that is flux. Flux
is often resin based (check your bottle and your MSDS) and/or a chemical
formula that will not poison you. You CAN irritate your sinuses and
lungs, and cough for a day or two (at least the brand I use, Old
Masters, can't poison me unless I confuse it's blue color for Romulan
Ale and take a swig).
Now, as you work on it you get it all
over your hands. That's why you must wash your hands immediately after
working. You want to get lead poisoning, lick your fingers. I've cast
lead into cames now, it didn't generate fumes (and incidentally my
stovetop could barely melt the lead).
Some of us paint, and we
use lead-based paints. Like a lampworker or glassblower using
frit/powder, it is more of a concern. However, the powdered pigment
isn't like flour and so on. It's a "heavy" powder, filled with glass
fluxes and heavy minerals. While it is a powder, I've noticed minimal
"floating dust" when I opened the sealed jar. I take a palette knife's
worth and put on a palette with no noticeable cloud. Of course then we
promptly mix it with binders and mediums and such and it's never again
in dust form. I do own a mask that I can wear if I am concerned (and I
use it for my silver stain mixes, which DO like to make dust clouds).
Otherwise... as rare as I actually mix a fresh batch of paint... it's
not a serious concern for me.
Now, for three "real world"
arguments. The owner of the local glass shop, a woman who is as generous
with her knowledge as she is skilled at a workbench, discussed lead
safety with me a few months ago after a Facebook thread made me panicky
and I bought ducting to build a ventilation rig. She informed me that
in 30+ years of doing stained glass she has occasionally had a blood
lead level test run, and it has never shown anything abnormal.
In the aforementioned FB thread, the owner of a professional studio
mentioned she had an employee once who did test for elevated lead.
Turned out he hadn't been changing out of his work clothes at work, and
had been driving home in them after being around soldering and lead 8
hours a day. THAT lead to an "elevated" level of blood lead! Not lead
So, in an effort to maybe put this to bed, both for
others and for my own paranoia, I just went to the hardware store three
hours ago and bought a big pack of lead tests. Instant Lead Testing ("If
it's red, There's lead!" it says. "If it's red, you dead!" I thought)
by Lead Check. A pack of plastic tubes with two ampules you crush to mix
the solution. You then apply it to surfaces and If It's Red(tm) You're
gonna have a bad time, mmkay?
Test 1 - My computer desk. I do
my pattern work on my computer and have been known to absentmindedly
click print while working on glass. Oh, I also eat here and spend 10-16
hours a day near this desk. You can imagine why it was site number 1. I
dumped yellow testing liquid all over the desk, several important keys,
and the left button of my mouse. Not a hint of red.
Test 2 -
Other common surfaces in my house. After all, as some people keep trying
to say to us, lead vapors are floating around to kill us and everyone
we love. My couch? Nope. My dining room table? Nope. If you are
unfamiliar with my home, it's an open floor plan, no walls. Couch armrest, kitchen counter, all ok.
Test 3 - What the heck, is this thing on? Solder and my
(paint-encrusted) palette knife. Both came back brilliant dark red
(oddly the solder took several seconds and the palette knife's droplets
turned red practically as soon as I thought about applying). I guess
Test 4 - My workbench. I tried the surface of my primary work bench. Yellow!
Test 5 - The plastic top of my lightbox. Tried several spots, all yellow!
Test 6 - The side of a plastic storage thing bordering my solder area. Yellow! This is about 1' from my soldering area.
Test 7 - The wall bordering my solder area. Permanent yellow staining of the paint, a foot from my soldering area.
Test 8 - The steel coil holder for my soldering iron, less than 1" away from the hot tip of the iron when it's on. YELLOW.
Test 9 - Dragging the thing through every cranny and coil above the
soldering iron in that holder. FINALLY got some pink.... at the opening
of the holder, which I hit every time I put the iron away without
looking right at it. I guess that makes sense.
Edit: Test 10 - Tested the ceiling above my soldering area in several spots on a 2' line above the bench. YELLOW.
So, in short:
Don't smelt lead from ore, don't lick your fingers, don't confuse your
gin and tonic with your flux and wash your hands, kids!