Chemicals, Solvents, & Hazardous Fumes

Acetone and ethanol are probably the most common solvents used in preparation labs, but more noxious solvents like toluene, xylene and MEK are sometimes necessary or found in other substances.  Other commonly used materials such as urethanes, rubbers, epoxies and resins used for casting, and waxes like cyclododecane may also give off irritating or harmful fumes. 

General lab safety procedures in labeling, storing and disposing of chemicals and solvents should be practiced in fossil preparation labs to ensure staff safety and, in fact, is an obligation of all employers.  The rules and regulations governing this fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Most fossil prep labs will be covered under OSHA’s standard for a laboratory where “relatively small quantities of hazardous chemicals are used on a non-production basis”.  See Regulation 29 CFR 1910.1450
  The basic requirements are that labs must:
1.    keep labels on containers they receive,
2.    maintain MSDS’s for each hazardous chemical, and
3.    inform and train employees in accordance with paragraph (h) of this section.
4.    maintain a written Chemical Hygiene Plan which sets forth procedures, equipment, personal protective equipment and work practices that are capable of protecting employees from the health hazards presented by hazardous chemicals used in that particular workplace.

For a further explanation of  the regulation and a summary on creating an appropriate plan access the American Institute for Conservation’s article Set Up for a Safe Space: A Chemical Hygiene Plan by Michael Grey White which also offers links to plans available online that can provide a useful templates covering topics such as:

•    Standard operating procedures
•    General safety principles
•    Health and hygiene 
•    Food and drink in the laboratory
•    Housekeeping
•    Chemical handling and storage

Understanding the risks involved in using any chemical or solvent is important.  Labs should have a file or notebook of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for every chemical and solvent available for use as a mandatory part of safe lab practice. 

The scale of laboratory operations as well as many of the chemicals and solvents in fossil preparation are similar to those used by art conservators and the Health & Safety pages of the American Institute for Conservation website contains a wealth of relevant information including:
•    A Conservator’s Guide to Labeling Hazardous Chemicals by Judy Bischoff is available in the Health and Safety section of the American Institute for Conservation’s website.

•    Whether you work in an institutional or private preparation lab, you have both an ethical and safety obligation to dispose of your chemical waste properly and legally.  From Cradle to Grave: Waste Management for Conservators written by Michael White, Judith J. Bischoff, Chris Stavroudis, and Lisa Goldberg of the American Institute for Conservation Health and Safety Committee contains pertinent information.  Note that this article was published in 2001, so state and federal websites for hazardous waste disposal should also be accessed. 

•    Health & Safety Technical Resources is a pdf document with a useful compilation of resources including regulatory, research and toxicological information.