Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News ( ISSN 1440-0561)
The journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.
Marc Grunseit, member, Technical Advisory Board,
Recently I was approached by the LEAD Group for some advice regarding the hazards associated with the popular home hobby of leadlighting. I have been a professional Stained Glass Artist for fifteen years and qualified and practised as a Medical Practitioner before that. Consequently, this is a subject close to my thoughts at all times.
When I recall my earliest encounters with the medium, I am horrified that I made many of the errors I now so roundly condemn. However, in my studio I do now adhere to the safety guidelines I recommend. Both the mistakes and the correct procedures are easy to perform, so with sufficient education there should be few dangers associated with leadlighting today. The problem is that most teachers and suppliers of materials do not adequately warn their students and customers of the hazards. This is largely due to ignorance, for I have observed many basic breaches of protocol in well established studios where they should know better. There may also be an element of desire not to discourage customers by dwelling on the negative. I would like to think that this is not so.
Newcomers to the craft are usually aware of the risk of cutting themselves on a sharp glass edge although the chances of serious injury are minimal. Virtually none are aware of the risk of lead poisoning or the dangers of some of the other heavy metals and acids used.
Put simply, a leadlight is a mosaic of pieces of glass, held together by grooved strips of lead (calmes). These are soldered where they join, putty is pushed into the groove holding the glass to cement it in place and waterproof the panel and the whole is often buffed with stove polish to produce a black patina. All of these stages expose the maker to lead and have the potential to contaminate the space in which the work is being carried out.
Leaving aside professional studios, there are three areas of particular concern:
I have observed leadlight classes conducted in some High schools, with rows of children all soldering at once in unventilated rooms, wearing no protective clothing, gloves or masks. Lead scraps littered the area and were not scrupulously removed before the next activity in the art room. There was no adequate washing of hands prior to the following meal break. Thus the exposure to lead in a sensitive age group applied not only to those knowingly participating in the course, but those others who used the same space and their families, due to their contaminated clothing and footwear.
The same observation could be made regarding the numerous evening classes conducted in schoolrooms and Arts Centres across the country.
The greatest risks must however be associated with using the materials at home. It is not uncommon to hear of people spreading an old blanket on the kitchen table after dinner, to do a bit of leadlighting. I confess to doing this myself, many years ago and I should have known better. Most home hobbyists do not know better because they receive no warnings or guidelines. To this end I have prepared a brief brochure outlining the main hazards and how to avoid them. It is intended as an introductory warning and is by no means the last word on the subject, but I feel that it is the minimum which should be provided to all newcomers to the craft.
The other separate warning which I feel is essential, is to pregnant women and parents of infants and toddlers. They should be advised not to have anything to do with the hobby unless they work in a specially designed studio, to which children have no access. As this is a fairly unlikely scenario, they quite simply should wait until their children are much older before starting.
There is a definite case to be made for leaving the medium to professionals, but this is probably unrealistic and perhaps undesirable. I have come round 180 degrees from my own starting point. I was introduced to Stained Glass at an evening class held in a local Public School carpentry room. I made my first panels on the kitchen table at home. I taught beginners in similar circumstances. Now I work in a studio designed and maintained to reduce the risks as far as possible. I no longer teach beginners nor sell supplies because I do not believe that they should be used in the home.
In America, as is often the case, this scenario nearly got out of hand. There was a National Policy developed to reduce lead in the environment, and lead for leadlighting was caught up in the net. Only sustained lobbying by the American Stained Glass Association gave lead calme an exemption at the last minute. Their genuine fear was the end of stained glass in America. My cynical observation was that the big business of home hobby leadlighting probably had more to do with the success of the lobbying, than altruism towards the art of stained glass.
I do not think such sledgehammer tactics are necessary here, just responsible marketing of potentially hazardous materials to adults, who sufficiently forewarned should be capable of using them safely.
Also see: Beware The Lead In Leadlighting
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Updated 24 November 2012