54,973,018. That’s how many registered organic and inorganic substances there were in the world when I wrote this sentence, according to the Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS). The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) gives the EPA in the United States the authority to maintain an inventory of all chemicals used in commerce (excluding chemicals used in foods and food additives, pesticides, drugs, cosmetics, tobacco, nuclear material, or munitions). To date, their inventory contains 84,000 such chemicals. Over 1670 of these are considered hazardous substances which your employer is required to inform you when you are working with them. You’ve probably seen products which state “This product contains a chemical known to the state of California…” There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 750 chemicals listed under California’s Proposition 65 which are known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity.
Of course, over 78% of the high volume chemicals produced have not had even basic toxicological testing (see Toxic Ignorance, published by the Environmental Defense Fund), let alone testing for carcinogenic properties. “High Volume” of course does not include all 84,000 chemicals used in commerce; in 1990, that list included a mere 2971 chemicals. In other words, around 653 chemicals have been tested for their toxicity by 1990. What a far cry that is from the 54,980,438 registered chemicals in existence (when I wrote this sentence). Some estimates put the total amount of chemicals tested worldwide for carcinogenic properties at around 900. Nine hundred out of nearly 55 million.
What’s a props person to do? When you look at all the products you use – spray paints, adhesives, epoxies, mold-making and casting, coatings, sealants, resins, foams, cleaners, and so on and so on – and count up all the various chemicals contained within, you could have hundreds of hazardous and carcinogenic substances which you are exposed to on a daily basis. If you wish to make a career of making props, that could mean several decades of exposure. It adds up quickly.
One shouldn’t generalize about safety, because proper safety procedures involve specific actions for specific chemicals. But if one were to distill down the essence of safety it is this: don’t breathe anything but air, and don’t get stuff on you. Always use the least-toxic product in every situation. Often, the only benefit of a more-toxic option is speed, or ease of use. Formula 409 may cut grease faster and with less effort then soap and a scrubber, but soap will not be absorbed through your skin and cause reproductive harm.
In the brief time it took you to read this article, around 24 chemicals have been added to the CAS database. As I write this sentence, the number stands at 54,980,470.