Contamination: examples of dangerous contaminants that can be found in museum costume collections, and which care should be taken.
- dust, fiber dust
- mercury, for example on small mirrors or top hats
- DDT or other chemicals used as pesticides
- arsenic, lead and other heavy metals in paints, dyes, finishing treatments
Protection from dust: dust masks
- Keep work areas and storage areas as clean as possible. When examining dusty and/or deteriorated textiles (before they are received into storage), consider wearing protective clothing and a mask, as dust and small fiber particles can be breathed into the lungs.
- Dust masks are worn to protect against inhaling dust and fiber particles while examining, mounting or cleaning museum objects. The mask must fit well in order to protect you, but remember that dust masks only protect against dust, not against chemicals in vapors and mists, which require the use of respirators. Approved dust masks may have the NIOSH N95 rating, indicated by ‘N95’ printed on the mask itself.
Mercury was traditionally used to make mirrors in the 16th-19th centuries, as well as being used to impart a sheen to top hats in the 19th and 20th centuries.
- touching mercury or breathing mercury fumes is dangerous to your health. Always do a risk assessment with items that are thought to be dangerous, isolate them and mark them with danger symbols.
- alchemists, embalmers, gilders and mirror makers traditionally used mercury, leading to illness and deaths.
- treating rabbit and beaver fur with mercury nitrate before it was made into felt for hats was common from the 18th century, being first banned in the United States in 1943 but still in use today in Europe. The fumes caused tremors and psychic disturbances, being the origin of the descriptive term “mad as a hatter”.
- Hats in museum collections can still give off mercury vapors, when touched, manipulated and in particular if steam is used to reshape them. See Graham Martin and Marion Kite: Conservator Safety: Mercury in felt hats (2003), in Changing Views of Textile Conservation, ed. Mary M. Brooks and Dinah D. Eastop, Getty Conservation Institute, California 2011.
DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and other chemicals have been used as pesticides in museums in the 20th century to combat moths and carpet beetles in costume collections. This practice has later required massive clean-ups. DDT is toxic and is linked to diabetes, cancer and neurological disorders, among others.
- Keep a record of any known use of pesticides in your museum collection and mark objects which have been treated. Physical evidence may be crystalline residues on objects, persistent odors such as from moth balls, fly strips, old stocks of chemicals in supply storage, etc. See Nancy Odegaard, Alyce Sadongei, Marilen Pool: Addressing the Problem: The Team Approach (2005) on compiling a history of museum pesticide use. In Changing Views of Textile Conservation, ed. Mary M. Brooks and Dinah D. Eastop, Getty Institute 2011.
- DDT is an organochlorine insecticide which is a colorless, crystalline solid, tasteless and almost odorless chemical compound.
Arsenic , lead and other heavy metals have traditionally been used in gilding, paints, dyes and all manner of production and finishing of textiles. It is safest to assume that garments in museum collections can be dangerous until they are proven safe.
- Lead from coffins, and arsenic and mercury from embalming fluids may be present in textiles taken from graves.
- Learn to identify lead buttons, decorative lead hair combs, and lead weights in gowns and avoid handling them.
- Clean areas carefully where there is lead, as lead dust and lead fumes are highly irritable and poisonous.