Tag Archives: chemicals

End-of-the-week Links

Well, I am off this weekend to Bucknell University, where I will be signing copies of my book during Homecoming Weekend. If you are in Central Pennsylvania, feel free to stop on by. I’ll try to post pictures and updates on my Twitter. I also have some stories I’ve found around the Internet this week:

Props master extraordinaire Jim Guy is profiled in yet another news article. He talks about how he got started, his favorite parts of the job, and how new people can begin a career in props.

LiveScience takes a look at the technology behind horror-movie monsters. Though it seems a lot of films just use CGI for everything, many effects are still practical. In fact, advances in technology have made it easier to use all sorts of prosthetic, animatronic and makeup effects for movies.

While we’re on monsters (it is nearly Halloween, after all), I enjoyed this article on a Philippine monster-making company. Their creatures are actually based on the characters from Philippine folklore, but done in a more-Western style.

The Credits talks with the makeup maestro for the new Carrie film. They discuss in detail how they did the infamous “pouring of blood” scene; it’s a little trickier than you might expect, but it led to a much more consistent result on-screen.

Finally, Non-Toxic Kids lays out ten reasons we need stronger laws about toxic chemicals. Though aimed at parents, the reasons are just as relevant to props people. While we may feel adequately informed about the dangers of industrial chemicals and supplies, we also use plenty of household cleaners and chemicals that you may not realize are also toxic.

Know What Chemicals You Are Working With

This past week, we learned that Gordon Billings, a UK props master, died from exposure to asbestos. Billings had suffered from shortness of breath and coughing for awhile, and passed away from lung cancer this past August. It was not until last week that the coroner issued his ruling that Billings’ death was due to asbestos exposure.

As a props master, Billings worked on films such as Empire of the Sun and TV series like The Sweeney. Part of his job was sweeping dust and debris from derelict buildings used as sets. Before his death, he had made a witness statement that he was not aware he was being exposed to asbestos.

As props people, we may be exposed to toxins, poisons and harmful chemicals on a daily basis. We may not even be aware of what we are exposing ourselves to. The harm from some of these chemicals may not manifest themselves for years, or even decades, after being exposed.

We may be smart about the particularly nasty chemicals; the ones that smell really bad and that have warnings all over their labels. But those chemicals that we only use once or twice a year may not cause as much harm as those which we subject ourselves to every day. Many harmful chemicals do not even have an odor, or give an indication that we are being exposed. As with Billings, you cannot tell whether you are breathing asbestos or whether you are just inhaling dust. The two-part polyurethanes we use in molding and casting have little to no odor, yet can be some of the more toxic chemicals you come into contact with in a props shop. Cleaners such as Simple Green or any of the “natural” cleaners which have “Orange” in the name can actually contain chemicals which cause reproductive problems, organ damage and even cancer, if you use them without gloves or adequate ventilation. The list goes on.

Protecting yourself from harmful exposure to chemicals is one area of safety where you cannot rely on assumptions or so-called “common sense”. Adequate protection can only come from gathering as much information about the products you use, and building the correct safety infrastructure to deal with them.

For every product in your props shop, you should have an MSDS which lists all hazardous ingredients and what safeguards should be taken. You can also find MSDS for the individual ingredients if you wanted more information. Websites such as the Chemical Abstracts Service and Toxipedia can guide you to more information about various chemicals. And, of course, Monona Rossol’s book, The Health and Safety Guide for Film, TV, and Theater is a must-read for anyone working in our industry.

It is one of the great downfalls of our industry that this kind of information is not taught as consistently or in-depth as it needs to be. Even when the desire to have a safe workplace is there, the knowledge of what that means, or the funds to make that happen are often lacking. A visit from OSHA can certainly point out all the dangers in a shop space, but the fear is that the company will be hit with steep fines or even shut down. One of my dreams is to have some kind of funded organization that could audit shop spaces for their safety infrastructure without fear of being reported, and train employees in proper safety procedures. The larger companies can already do this, as can areas with strong union presences, but there still exists so many smaller theatres and ad hoc film production companies with practically no knowledge of safety. Colleges and universities also suffer greatly from a lack of proper precautions, and these are training the next generation of technicians and managers.

Until that happens, it is up to each of us to protect ourselves. Know what chemicals and hazards you are dealing with. You do not want to devote your entire life working like Gordon Billings, only to spend your last years on Earth suffering from health problems.

The Nose Knows Not

I often see a lot of products advertise themselves as “low odor”. I also hear the occasional prop maker mention that one product is safer because it “smells better” than an alternative.

What is smell? Smell means you are detecting airborne particles, fumes, gases, vapors, dusts and mists. And if these tiny airborne things are reaching your nose, than you can be sure some of them are entering your lungs, and from there, your bloodstream. So smelling something is a warning that you may be breathing hazardous substances.

But the smell is not related to the toxicity of that substance. In fact, particularly odorous substances can, in some situations, be safer than their low-odor counterparts. Relying on your sense of smell is a poor method of determining the quality of the air you are breathing and whether you should be wearing a respirator or working in a spray booth. Let’s see why.

First, a brief foray into the world of measuring toxic exposure amounts, as well as how we measure “smell”. You need the MSDS to know what chemicals are in the products you are using and in what quantities.

OSHA measures the amount of a substance in the air using “parts per million”, or PPM. For example, if Chemical X is recorded at 1000 PPM, than for every million atoms of air in a room, one thousand of those are Chemical X. The other 999,000 are probably atoms of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, water vapor and so forth.

To determine the safe level that certain chemicals can be worked at without causing harm, OSHA has a number of measurements related to the threshold limit value (TLV). The TLV gives a number in PPM; above that number is harmful, below is not. The TLV is indicated in a number of ways. There is the “ceiling value”, or TLV-C, which is the amount that should never be exceeded. The TLV-C is usually pretty high, because it takes a lot of any single chemical to harm you in one breath. More common is the time-weighted average (TLV-TWA). This gives you the average level of a chemical exposure over a period of time (usually eight hours unless otherwise indicated). 1 This number is far lower than the TLV-C, because you are being continuously exposed to a certain level over an extended time. 2

Let’s look at acetone. Acetone has a TLV-TWA of 500 ppm. That means that over an eight hour day, your body has been harmed in some way if you have breathed, on average, 500 molecules of acetone with every million pieces of air. It may be higher at times—such as when you open a can of acetone—and lower at other times, such as when it has all evaporated and you are working on something else.

Getting back to smell, the other important measurement is the Odor Threshold (OT). This measurement, also in PPM, indicates at what concentration you can smell that particular chemical. Acetone has an OT of 62 PPM.

Let’s see what happens. You are in your shop working with acetone. It fills the air at 30 PPM. You keep working with it. It is now 62 PPM; you start to get a whiff of that distinctive acetone smell. “Uh oh.” you think. “Better open a window and set some fans up.” The increased ventilation brings the concentration of acetone back down to 50 PPM. You no longer smell it. During this whole time, your exposure to acetone never even gets close to 500 PPM because the smell alerts you to the fact that you are being exposed; you smell it in a concentration far below what is dangerous to breath.

Now let us look at another chemical common in the props shop. Hexane (or n-hexane) is used as a solvent, and is found in some cleaners and degreasers, as well as in adhesives, particularly fast-drying glues or cements intended for leather. Hexane has  a TLV-TWA of 50 PPM and an OT of 130 PPM.

Let’s step through another typical day. It’s the morning and you are gluing some leather together. Your exposure to hexane creeps up to 80 PPM for a few minutes. You clean something off with a hexane-containing cleaner and the concentration of hexane goes up to 100 PPM. You work on something else for a few hours and the level of hexane drops to 10 PPM as it evaporates. In the afternoon, you are using some rubber cement and white-out (both of which typically contain hexane) and your exposure goes back up to 60 PPM. In fact, by the end of the day, your average exposure (your TLV-TWA) has been around 55 PPM—above the limit of 50 PPM, meaning you inhaled a harmful amount. However, the level never even approached the OT of 130 PPM, so you never smelled it.

In other words, if you relied on your sense of smell to warn you of dangerous chemical exposure, it would have failed you in this case.

Any chemical with an OT above its TLV-TWA will not warn you with its scent before you are exposed to dangerous levels. Some chemicals lack any adequate warning signs for overexposure. The cyanates used in polyurethanes popularly used in molding and casting are particularly egregious. For instance, Methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI) is commonly found in two-part rigid polyurethanes and polyurethane foam. Though one of the least toxic of the isocyanates, it still causes harm at low levels 3. Exposure can also create sensitization or allergies, which leads to violent or even fatal reactions in workers exposed to even a small amount. The TWA is only 0.005 PPM (the PEL is actually 0.02 PPM, but that is a ceiling limit). The OT has not even been established, but you can be expected to have some warning in the form of eye and nose irritation around 0.05 to 0.1 PPM. 4 In other words, you may not have any warning until you have been exposed to at least ten times over the amount that is safe to breathe over eight hours, or even five times the maximum amount you should breathe at any one time. Even then, you may not correlate your runny nose or watery eyes to the polyurethane; it has no distinctive smell, so you may just continue on, thinking “Hey, this is great. It doesn’t smell bad, so it must be safe to breathe.”

That’s wrong. Dead wrong.


  1. You will also run across the PEL (Permissible Exposure Limit) of a chemical. This is the actual legal limit established by OSHA, above which an employer cannot expose its workers to. You have to check what the PEL is measure in; a TLV-TWA for eight hours is often used, but it may also a shorter exposure time or even a ceiling limit.
  2. Many other organizations have their own standards and measurements, and not every chemical has been measured in every way. So acetone has a TLV-TWA of 500 PPM, but the TLV-C has not been established by OSHA. It does, however have an IDLH (Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health) of 2500 PPM; this is typically a bit stronger than TLV-C, indicating you can probably die with a short exposure (under 30 minutes) at this level.
  3. See this compilation of health hazards of MDI.
  4. Occupational Health Guideline for Methylene Bisphenyl Isocyanate (MDI), US Dept of Health and Human Services, 1978.

Proptober Fest Links

Berkeley Rep has posted a video of the set changes in Chinglish. It’s fun and very well made; I saw Chinglish back on Broadway and the scene changes were slick, fast and fluid. I wish more theatres featured their technical and backstage elements like Berkeley Rep has done here; so much of what we do is underrepresented in the media, and it all just disappears once the show closes.

If you like James Bond, a new website called “The Credits” has a short article on some of the famous gadgets in those 22 films. The website also has a cool story and video on Western Costume, one of the large costume rental houses in Los Angeles.

A blog called “She Creates Stuff” has an interesting technique for aging glass bottles with hardening oil rather than paint; this keeps them food safe so they can still be drunk from (found via the Propnomicon blog).

Of the 68,890,282 chemicals used in business and industry today, only about 900 have been tested for cancer-causing abilities. As props people, we are exposed to many chemicals on a daily basis in our paints, adhesives, cleaning products, molding and casting compounds, coatings and even when cutting solid materials. Many of these chemicals are introduced to products without testing whether they are toxic or cause long-term harm. The Safe Chemicals Act means to amend the current laws so that manufacturers have to test chemicals before they sell them to you, rather than the other way around. Currently, it is languishing in the Senate; you can help push it along by contacting Senator Harry Reid, signing this online petition, or by contacting your own Senator to urge action.

A Drinking Problem

The following two stories remind us not only why it is important to keep all chemicals properly labelled in your shop, but also to have your props crew meticulously check their presets before the show.

From The New York Times, July 6, 1902:

The reminiscences of J. H. Stoddart recall an experience which came near being his undoing. It was during the run of “A Celebrated Case,” in 1878, in which Mr. Stoddart played the role of the Sergeant.

“I have reason to remember his character,” writes the actor. “In the prologue I had a scene with Mrs. Booth, who played wife of Jean Renaud, the hero, in the course of which she was supposed to give me, as the Sergeant, a cup of wine, which I had to swallow. It so happened that the property man had been using kerosene on the stage during the day, and had left the bottle containing that liquid upon the dresser, where Mrs. Booth was in the habit of finding the drink for the Sergeant. During the business she poured a full cup from this bottle, handed it to me, and I swallowed the contents at a gulp.

“‘Oh, Lord!’ I said, as I received the potion.

“‘What have I done?’ asked Mrs. Booth under her breath.

“I could only gasp out ‘Kerosene!’ and made a hasty exit. For almost a week every one who came within range of my breath sniffed and inquired if I detected the odor of coal oil.”

From The New York Times, February 14, 1922:

Miss Christine Norman appeared in her part in “The Nest” at the Forty-eighth Street Theatre at the holiday matinee yesterday afternoon and, presumably, will continue to appear for the duration of the play, but for some time last Saturday night and Sunday it was doubtful when, if ever, she would come back to the stage. She had looked upon property wine when it was not property wine and found that not even stage beverages are always harmless these days.

In the first act of “The Nest” Miss Norman drinks two glasses of supposed champagne. Usually she tosses them off with every evidence of relish, one almost immediately after the other. But at last Saturday evening’s performance the first glass almost choked her. It burned and she gasped, hardly able to continue her role. When she was offered the second glass, according to the text of the play, she hurriedly improvised the line “No, thank you, no more!” and the audience did not know why she was so emphatic. They merely thought that she did not want another drink, and she didn’t, for the “champagne” she had drunk was furniture polish. An assistant property man had made a mistake and put the wrong bottle where the maid, who brought it on the stage, usually found a bottle containing a harmless liquid that looked like champagne.

Although Miss Norman was made ill by the furniture polish, she fought through the performance without betraying her condition to the audience. When she reached her home Saturday night she sent for Dr. Elliott C. Burrows of 1 West Sixty-ninth Street, who found her suffering acutely and said that only the oil in the polish, which counteracted the effect of the other chemicals, had prevented a critical and perhaps fatal illness. As it was, Miss Norman spent some bad hours, and was still shaky yesterday afternoon.