Toxic Art – Alexander Calder’s Mercury Fountain

As an occupational hygienist, when visiting the Alexander Calder exhibition at Tate Modern last week I couldn’t help but stop and take notice of the pictures and description of one of the works created by this American artist well known for his mobiles and other “kinetic sculptures” . A mercury fountain.

While I was looking at the display, I overheard a comment by a young woman to her partner as they too read about this work

“It couldn’t have been real mercury could it. That would be dangerous”

I couldn’t help responding

“It was, and it is ”

Mercury, the magical Quicksilver, has been known since ancient times. A metal that’s a liquid at room temperature that flows like water.  Being a liquid, vapours are given off which can be inhaled and it can also be absorbed through intact skin. It’s highly toxic, affecting the brain, gastrointestinal system and kidneys. It’s particularly noted for causing neurological and behavioural disorders due to brain damage. Symptoms include tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches and cognitive and motor dysfunction. In Victorian times mercury compounds were used in the manufacture of felt for hats and the workers in that industry were particularly affected. This is said to have inspired Lewis Carroll’s “Mad Hatter” from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This was disputed by the esteemed Professor Hugh Waldron back in 1961, but the myth persists.

image

The exhibition website tells us the story of the fountain’s creation

In 1937 Calder was one of the contributors to the Pavilion of the Spanish Republic designed by Josep Lluís Sert for the International Exposition in Paris, where his Mercury Fountain was installed in proximity to Picasso’s painting Guernica. In the middle of the Spanish Civil War, Calder showed his support for the embattled Republic by creating a fountain that would run with mercury from the mines at Almadén – a valuable economic and strategic resource. (Tate website)

I found it a little ironic that a work of art created in support of a government dedicated to improve the lot of working people celebrated an industry likely to have been responsible for poisoning the workers in the mine where it was extracted.

Although it seems likely that visitors to the exhibition back in the 930’s would have been exposed to mercury vapours, given the relatively short period that they would have been in the vicinity their exposure would have been limited and its highly unlikely there would have been a significant risk to their health. However, I’d be more concerned about the staff working in the Spanish Pavilion.

Today the fountain can be seen at the Fundació Joan Miró museum in Barcelona – carefully displayed under glass. Hopefully appropriate measures are taken to protect the workers who have to maintain it from the toxic liquid and vapours.

Mercury fountain

Picture from the Fundació Joan Miró museum website

Dark Satanic Mills

image

Many people when they get to a certain age start to wonder where they came from. That was certainly true for me so a few years ago I started to research my family tree. Although there were a few surprises my research confirmed that I my family were ordinary workers. I wanted to find out about my roots, about my ancestors, where they came from and how they lived. And as an occupational hygienist I couldn’t help but be interested in what they did for a living and their working conditions.

Halifax Mill Chimneys

Coming from Lancashire it wasn’t a surprise to find that many of my ancestors who lived in the 19th and 20th Centuries were employed at some time during their lives in cotton mills. And working in cotton mills they were faced with a whole host of health risks.

I’ve always been interested in industry and when I was a boy my mother arranged for me to have a look round the mill where she worked. The first thing that hit me when I walked in the mill was the tremendous noise. Levels in weaving sheds were likely to be well above 90 dBA – often approaching, or even exceeding 100 dB(A)  (these days it’s accepted that regular exposure to levels in excess of 85 dB(A) is likely  to lead to hearing loss). Communication was difficult and mill workers soon learned how to lip read and communicating with each other by “mee mawing” – a combination of exaggerated lip movements and miming

image

Not surprisingly many cotton workers developed noise induced hearing loss – one study in 1927 suggested that at least 27% of cotton workers in Lancashire suffered some degree of deafness. Personally, I think that’s an underestimation. This is how the term “cloth ears” entered the language – it was well known that workers in the mills were hard of hearing.

This lady is a weaver and is kissing the shuttle – sucking the thread through to load the shuttle ready for weaving.

image

This practice presented a number of health risks – the transmission of infectious diseases, such as TB, but as the shuttle would be contaminated with oil, and the oils used then were unrefined mineral oil – there was a risk of developing cancer of the mouth.

Exposure to oil occurred in other ways particularly for workers who had direct contact with machinery or where splashing of oil could occur. There was a high incidence of scrotal cancer in men who operated mule spinners – and this was a problem even in the 1920s. In earlier times workers in mills had to work in bare feet as the irons on their clogs could create sparks which could initiate a fire due to the floorboards being soaked with oil. Contact with these very oil soaked floorboards led to cases of foot cancer.

image

And of course there was the dust. Exposure to cotton dust, particularly during early stages of production, can lead to the development of byssinosis – a debilitating respiratory disease. An allergic condition, it was often known as “Monday fever” as symptoms were worst on Mondays, easing off during the week. A study on 1909 reported that around 75% of mill workers suffered from respiratory disease.

image

The worst areas for dust exposures were the carding rooms where the cotton was prepared ready for spinning, but dust levels could be high in spinning rooms too.

image

Although control measures started to be introduced in the 1920’s workers continued to be exposed to dust levels that could cause byssinosis. Studies in the 1950’s showed  than more than 60% of card room workers developed the disease as well as around 10 to 20% of workers in some spinning rooms.

image

A lot of work was devoted to studying dust levels, developing standards and control measures by the early pioneers of occupational hygiene in the UK and I’m sure this contributed to improved conditions in the cotton industry in the UK. I’m not sure I’d like to have to operate their dust sampling kit though – it certainly wasn’t personal sampling!

image

Today things are different. The carding machines, spinning frames and looms are silent and have been sent for scrap. The mills have been abandoned and are derelict or demolished or have been converted for other uses.

image

Cotton is still in demand but it’s a competitive market and the work has been moved to other countries where labour is cheap and standards are not as high – Africa, China and the Indian sub-continent. Another consequence of globalisation. Although you could say that the industry is returning to where it originated in the days before the industrial revolution. Sadly, conditions and working methods in many workplaces in the developing world are primitive and controls are minimal. It seems like the lessons learned in the 20th Century in the traditional economies are rarely applied so not surprisingly those traditional diseases associated with the industry are re-emerging in developing economies.

image

Studies carried out in recent years have shown high incidences of byssinosis in some mills developing countries. One study in Karachi, Pakistan in 2008 found that among 362 textile workers 35.6% had byssinosis. (Prevalence of Byssinosis in Spinning and Textile Workers of Karachi, Pakistan, Archives of Environmental & Occupational Health, Vol. 63, No. 3, 2008 ). A study of textile workers in Ethiopia published in 2010 showed a similar proportion – 38% had developed byssinosis,  with 84.6% of workers in the carding section suffering from the disease

image

Another study, this time into textile workers’ noise exposures in Pakistan indicated noise levels in the range 88.4-104 dB(A). 57% were unaware that noise caused hearing damage and almost 50% didn’t wear ear defenders

William Blake wrote of “Dark Satanic Mills” in 1804. This was still a fair description of the working conditions in Lancashire when my ancestors worked in the mills. And I believe its valid today in many workplaces in the developing world.

image

It’s not easy to get accurate figures on occupational health in the UK and so much more difficult in the developing world. The best estimate we have (and it’s likely to be an underestimate) is that 2.3 million people die due to accidents at work and work related disease (World health Organisation). And the vast majority of these are due to ill health

image

Some occupational hygienists might take a dispassionate, academic interests in dust exposure. But I think most of us are motivated by a genuine desire to prevent ill health at work and improve working conditions. Many of us work in countries where conditions although far from perfect are relatively good. But can we turn a blind eye to what’s happening in the rest of the world?

Personally, In my view, it’s something we need to be thinking about.

Communicating Science

I spent last week in Ireland. The main purpose of my visit was to attend the annual conference of the Occupational Hygiene Society of Ireland in Portlaoise.  (If you don’t know what occupational hygiene is see here). The theme of the Conference was “How well do we communicate” and one of the highlights was the talk by Fergus McAuliffe, an Environmental Scientist from University College Cork.  Fergus won the International  “Fame Lab” competition last year and was a speaker at the TEDX Ireland conference in Dublin.

His talk was about communicating science, with particular reference to presentations. The key points were :

  • Don’t try to cover too much
  • Use appropriate language for the target audience – “word down” (i.e. use simple language)
  • Use a logical structure
  • Use Powerpoint wisely – concentrate on good quality visuals
  • Deliver with passion – people remember what they feel

Although his talk was aimed at “scientists” his advice could equally apply to other contexts – including art. I’ve seen quite a few “artists statements” and descriptions or critiques of works of art where I can’t understand what the speaker or author is going on about!

Noise and hearing

The looms have made McDermott deaf. Well not deaf exactly, but they have changed sound, damaged sound, so that sometimes spoken words seem to come from the bottom of a well, and others have halos around them, gauzy halos that slur sound.

This passage, from Anita Shreve’s novel "Sea Glass” , which I finished recently, is one of the best descriptions I’ve read of the impact of noise induced hearing loss on an individual.  It was the first of her books that I’ve read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s set in and around the cotton mills in New England in the USA in the 1930s, before and during a bitter strike which takes place when the bosses make a vicious cut to workers’ wages.

In the novel, McDermott is a loom fixer in a mill. He has been exposed to high levels of noise for all his relatively short working life. And it is this exposure that has caused him to become deaf. But, as come across in the passage, noise induced hearing loss doesn’t just make it more difficult to hear, it distorts the sound making it difficult to understand speech and spoiling the enjoyment of music and other activities that involve listening

File:Spinning room in indian orchard cotton mill.jpg

A ring spinning mill in The USA in 1916 (picture source Wikimedia commons)

The development of noise induced hearing loss follows a characteristic pattern, although the severity will be dependent upon a number of factors including the intensity of the noise experienced, the duration of exposure, the pattern of exposure, individual susceptibility and many other complex considerations.  Noise-induced hearing impairment occurs predominantly in the high-frequency range of 3 to 6 kHz (3,000 to 4,000 Hz), the effect being greatest at 4 kHz. Frequencies above this range are less affected resulting in a characteristic dip in audiogram charts created during hearing tests usually known as the “4 Khz dip”.

An audiogram for a worker who is starting to suffer from noise induced hearing loss. The “4 kHz dip” is clearly identifiable (Source: American Academy of Family Physicians website)

When a worker first starts to suffer from noise induced hearing loss difficulties are experienced during conversation, and speech on the TV or radio begins to become indistinct.  Some higher frequency domestic sounds, for example a clock ticking, may also become difficult to hear.  As hearing deterioration progresses, further difficulties are experienced in conversation – even in face-to-face situations, speech and music on the television and radio begins to sound even more muffled, and it may not be possible to hear many ordinary domestic sounds.  The ability to determine the direction from which a sound comes is also affected.  Even small values of hearing impairment  may have an effect on the understanding of speech.

It’s difficult for someone with normal hearing to appreciate how the world sounds to someone who has been made deaf by exposure to noise. The UK Health and Safety Executive have an audio demonstration that tries to get this across here.

Once noise induced hearing loss has occurred the damage is permanent, and cannot be reversed.  All that can be done is to take measures to prevent hearing deteriorating further once the  hearing loss has been detected.  So the important thing is to control exposure to prevent hearing damage occurring.