Stained glass has been a popular fixture in buildings throughout the ages. Windows, doors, tables, lighting fixtures and decorative window hangings are only a few of the applications of this beautiful craft. With the rise in do-it-yourself hobbyists, stained glass has become a popular leisure craft performed in the home, but without precaution, the use of lead solder can lead to lead poisoning.
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According to the American Journal of Industrialized Medicine, people who work with stained glass for a living are at twice the risk for lead exposure than a hobbyist or someone with stained glass fixtures in the home. Most cases of lead poisoning are triggered by the ingestion of lead, or the inhalation of lead fumes or dust. Fumes are caused by soldering with lead, and the higher the temperature, the more fumes are released. Dust is created by the dismantling of old frames, where wood and plaster that had absorbed lead through years of contact are cut apart. The lead-containing sawdust becomes airborne, where it can easily be inhaled.
Severe abdominal pain is the first symptom of an acute toxic dose, usually from directly ingesting lead. If the exposure was through inhaled dust, however, the progression of the illness is much more gradual. Symptoms include headaches, constipation, irritability and decreased appetite as the concentration of lead in the bloodstream builds up over time with repeated exposure.
The key to preventing lead poisoning to limit lead exposure. You should adequately ventilate areas where you work with stained glass, and use a respirator. Never eat, drink or smoke in the work area, and thoroughly wash all exposed skin before touching your mouth or face. Since sweeping and dry-dusting agitate dust particles and make them airborne, you should clean all surfaces with damp rags. Wash clothes worn while working with lead solder separately from non-contaminated clothes to prevent the transfer of dust and particles. Dispose of all lead-contaminated waste, including water used for clean-up, according to local hazardous material laws.
It is possible to solder stained glass without using lead. With the foil method, the edges of each piece of glass are wrapped with copper foil, which allows lead-free solder to adhere without damaging the glass. Many lead-free solders contain dangerous chemicals such as cadmium or antimony instead, so they are really not nontoxic, the toxicity just does not come from lead. Solders that are silver-based are generally considered safer alternatives. If a home contains stained glass windows with lead solder, it is possible to remove the windows and have them resoldered with a nontoxic formula.
Unborn children are at the highest risk of developing lead poisoning, so pregnant women should never use lead solder or handle contaminated materials. Antique stained glass windows are a special risk, because over time lead oxidises, creating a fine white powder that can fall off or become airborne. Once separated from the lead, the oxidative residue can eventually contaminate the entire house.
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