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January 27, 2006

safer - but still not safe enough

by sven at 8:03 am

Epoxy putty is an amazing sculpting material... But it gives me the willies.

So far, I've discovered several types of putty: plumber's epoxy putty, Magic Sculpt, Apoxie Sculpt, milliput, and Green Stuff. All of these brands come in two parts -- a resin, and a hardening agent -- which you knead together to activate. Working time varies from about 5 minutes to 3 hours, depending on which product you use. When the putty dries, it's extremely sturdy -- but can easily be sawed, drilled, or sanded.

However, epoxy resins are extremely toxic. This fact seems to frequently be downplayed or ignored by manufacturers and hobbyists. This fellow, for instance, in demonstrating how to mix resin and hardener, doesn't wear any gloves. Elsewhere on his site, he talks about using his saliva (!!) to smooth the putty. ...That's a great way to ingest toxins -- don't do it!

I've been trying to research how to approach toxins in the art studio intelligently. My best plan at present is to wear vinyl safety gloves, a respirator rated for organic solvents, and set up a desktop airbrush spray paint booth to vent fumes to the outside. At present, I have the respirator, and am using latex gloves. I still need to get a spray booth, and the gloves should be upgraded.

To check if my plan makes sense, I consulted Kim Graham -- a truly amazing sculptor whom I met at the art marketing workshop in November. Kim recently left working in the special effects / fantasy sculpting industry -- largely because she was beginning to develop sensitivities to some of the sculpting media. (She's moving into fine art ceramic figures and Art Nouveau fireplace facades -- please, look at her stunning website!) ...She's known people who've died from misuse of art materials -- so I asked about that, too. Here's what she wrote me:

"You have taken all the necessary safety precautions. The vinyl gloves are your best protection. Magic Sculpt, Apoxie and Plumbers putty are all Epoxy that has been loaded with some powders like talc. The resins can seep into your skin, and over time cause nerve death in your fingertips. If you are only using this stuff once or twice a week you will be fine with just gloves, but if you are using it constantly, all the precautions are a good idea. A good rule of thumb is if you can smell it, you are sucking it into your lungs.

It is the liquid form of Epoxy that will give you some real trouble. That and the volatiles used to thin it, like paint thinner, Lacquer thinner and Acetone. These are the most deadly and the ones that lead directly to the deaths of those people. These substances shred cells and do it quickly. All of the precautions should be in place every time you use them! Lacquer Thinner and Acetone are the most dangerous. Their purpose is to breakdown molecular bonds aggressively. The two people that I knew, and I hesitate to call them friends, did some downright stupid things. I watched in horror when one of them used acetone to wash his face and hands like it was water! The other was a professional fiberglasser and refused to wear a respirator, even when I bought him one, because it was uncomfortable. His job was to spray epoxy gel coats onto furniture. In order for epoxy to be put through an air gun it has to be cut 30 to 50% with acetone. Essentially he was atomizing this toxic brew and breathing it wholesale into his lungs. True, you will not be handling epoxy in quantities that will hurt you immediately, just be warned that this stuff resides in fat cells and can stay in the body for years. It is the accumulated damage that can get you."

Sobering words of caution. Stopmo folk using epoxy putty for puppet construction, heed the warning... "nerve death in your fingertips!"

Last night I tried working with plumber's epoxy putty outside while wearing the respirator and latex gloves. It's better than what most people would do -- but I'm still uncomfortable. I have the sense that resin fumes are probably passing through the latex. My hands feel dry, and I'm just really hoping that it's due to the plastiline and other materials I handled during the evening, not the epoxy.

Also, I could occasionally smell the epoxy through the respirator. That's not too surprising -- a respirator cuts down on how much vapor gets through, but it's not 100% effective. Even so, I'm getting increasingly antsy to get that spray booth. It'll make me feel better when I have the means to forcably suck the fumes away from myself and vent them outside.

posted by sven | January 27, 2006 8:03 AM | categories: sculpture, stopmo