Safety First

Email by elizabeth on February 22, 2016
Categories Filed Under: NEWS

I hope you have been receiving emails about the use of heavy metals and toxic components in colored glass. I've been receiving my information from my local wholesaler and some directly from Uroboros Glass. There seems to be concern about high levels of toxic cadmium and selenium in the vicinity of the glass manufacturer.

This shouldn't be any surprise to us in the glass industry.

Our medium is fraught with hazardous materials. It doesn't matter if you solder, paint, stain, enamel, fuse, sandblast or whatever additional technique you use to embellish your glass work, you know there are potential risks. This is why we wear safety goggles, gloves, aprons, shoes, masks and or respirators. This is why we educate ourselves, our clients, our students and the general public about the risks and how we can safely work with these materials. It is why we read, correctly store, have eyewash stations, first aid kits, consult with local fire/rescue and address the information on MSDS sheets. As an industry, we have been pretty pro-active since we first learned about the hazards of lead.

And we've been aware that lead has been a risk for a very long time. Back in the early 1990's the US government wanted to ban all lead. This decree was a result of children suffering from lead poisoning, usually ingested from sources such as lead painted toys, imported from China or loose lead based paint on window sills and walls. Instead of targeting the true source of the problem, unsupervised children, poverty and lead in painted materials near children, the wisdom of the day was to ban all lead. Luckily the glass conference in Cincinnati at that time, had enough signatures to sway and exempt stained glass from this governmental policy. It would have killed the glass industry in a heart beat, made things like lead crystal illegal, fishing weights banned and regulated every piece of stained glass, historically, religiously and in secular use, in some sort of violation. This was a serious issue, intending nothing but good, however this blanket policy, was inappropriate because the government did not take the time to fully understand the ramifications of their original plan.

There used to be a company in Toronto, called Canada Metal. They smelted all manner of materials, mostly metals, for all kinds of useful objects. They had a large industrial site, in the old water front, east end of the city. They also made lead came. Lots of it. And as cities grow and residents want to gentrify run down areas, pressure regarding health risks, smells and such, finally closed the site. It is now a trendy residential area. And every now and then a large condominium construction starts, disturbing the soil, and surprise – lead contamination. The sins of the father….

I also live on the huge chunk of stone, known as the Canadian Shield. Back in the ice age, glaciers moved the earth and deposited all sorts of interesting and useful minerals. Gold, silver, lead, nickel etc. Some in concentrations large enough to mine. Some minerals like uranium, not so nice to be living close to.

I don't know know all the facts regarding this story about the high levels of cadmium and selenium in the neighborhood of the glass manufacturer. I hope that that they are responsible enough to know that by contaminating their factory and their immediate environment they risk their employee's health and well being. If the contamination spreads, then it affects their neighbors. Eventually they would run the risk of self destructing their very existence. Perhaps I am naive to believe that they know better. Perhaps it was the sins of an earlier generation. Perhaps there is some natural phenomenon.

Now that a hazard has been recognized the hunt is on who to blame and who is going to pay. It sounds like we are in the witch hunt phase – local municipalities looking for who can afford to pay and local businesses running good spin on public relations. Reminds me all too much of the movie Erin Brockovitch.

What I do know is that our reds, oranges and yellows are going to up in price. If cadmium and selenium are forcibly banned or voluntarily removed from recipes, it will fundamentally change color formulations. This will mean changes in prices, availability and the final resultant color. My local wholesaler is already driving fear and suggesting we buy now, what we can and warns that future prices will be significantly increased.

There is a lot here for every stained glass studio/maker to consider. Where are we still blind to the environment, to our health and safety? How can we solve this problem and make things better? This issue is half a continent away from me, but that doesn't mean I can afford to ignore it or deny it. I love glass and want to see it survive and thrive, despite it's potential risks. We have an amazing knowledge base and can work with this material safely. As an art form, stained glass needs to be supported and we may need to come together to have our voices heard. Perhaps it's time for the big stained glass associations to get involved, share solid research and information and provide support to our industry resources.