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Sunday, August 1, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Budget Cuts Target Safety, Classes At UW Art School

In a national epidemic of cost-cutting, arts often are the first target.

At the University of Washington, the School of Art suffered a double blow that could affect students' health as well as their education. A 5 percent budget cut will mean fewer teachers next year and bigger class sizes. That would be bad enough by itself.

But the Legislature also denied funding to renovate the Art Building. The plans would have improved ventilation to make it safer for students and faculty.

To understand the seriousness of that problem, it's necessary to step back a few years.

John Young lost his sense of smell some time in 1987. So did four students in the UW School of Art, where Young is professor of sculpture.

None of the five knew anyone else had been afflicted until one day in 1989, when several of them happened to be in the same hall, and one sadly mentioned something he could no longer smell. Two others said the same thing had happened to them.

Young, who was part of that conversation, began checking around the art department. What he found disturbed him.

In addition to five people who had lost their sense of smell, five staff members had serious respiratory problems that no one had been able to diagnose.

Several of the staff members with upper respiratory problems had been hospitalized, one of them for two months. Inquiries by concerned members of the art department revealed that no other UW department reported similar problems.

Young and others checked Seattle area hospitals to see if there had been a surge in olfactory loss; there hadn't. The School of Art was a blip in an otherwise normal population.

Toxins suspected

Young suspected that environmental toxins in the art building might be responsible. He took his suspicions to UW officials, who appointed a committee to study the problem. Air samples taken in the building raised eyebrows. Young says they were bad, sometimes very bad.

The building ventilation system routinely was turned off at 5 p.m. weekdays, and remained off all weekend, for energy conservation. Art students do much of their studio work during evenings and weekends. Much of their work involves chemicals, fixatives, and processes such as welding, all of which emit toxic fumes.

Yet most classrooms had no adequate ventilation. Even the modest ventilation that existed didn't always function. One roof vent was discovered to have been stuck shut for years.

In some studios, the air intake in the ceiling and the exhaust vent on the floor are located on the same wall. Watching a flow of smoke reveals good air flow along that wall, but little to no venting of fumes elsewhere in the studio.

Even the metalsmithing studios, where the ventilation had been upgraded in the 1970s and was thought safe, had less than half the air flow required to vent the space adequately. Metalsmithing professor John Marshall recalls leaving the building regularly with a headache. "The vent system on the ceiling now is cosmetic," said Marshall, who has changed many traditional silversmithing practices to minimize toxic fumes.

Chronic headaches also plagued Alden Mason, a former professor of painting who now is retired. "In the art game, everything you use is poisonous in one way or another," Mason says.

Lung cancer at 58

Some wonder whether the 1989 death of ceramics professor Howard Kottler from lung cancer at age 58 may have been related to his work.

Kottler was not a smoker. At the time of his death, Dr. Ben Goffe, a physician who was Kottler's friend, said, "We have to suspect that some of the chemicals he used in his ceramics weren't safe. His glazes were unique, and a few years ago, no one realized many of these chemicals were so dangerous."

UW art faculty members include some of the Northwest's most gifted artists. Unlike art students, who come and go, faculty members are there year after year. When their health is threatened, "You're talking about the longevity of some of the best artists in the region," notes Jerome Silbergeld, chairman of the art department.

Though some people who use the building think poor ventilation may threaten the health of professors and students, no laws or standards were, or are, being violated.

"There are no real indoor air-quality standards at this time," said Zach Segal, a UW environmental health specialist. Segal said several agencies are working to develop indoor air-quality standards, but "special interests keep chipping away at it. The draft gets a little weaker every time it comes out."

If standards finally are adopted, Washington will be one of the first states to have an indoor air code, Segal says.

Potential problems

In the meantime, buildings such as the art department's continue to pose potential hazards. Art processes have changed since the Art Building was constructed in 1946. Even the addition, built in the mid-1960s, was designed before anyone realized the toxicity of many art materials and methods.

Nevertheless, no one could say conclusively that bad air was responsible for the health problems Young saw.

"Chemical reactions can destroy olfactory nerves, but so can viruses," Young said. "We couldn't prove that toxins in the air were responsible for the loss of smell, so it was difficult to get action from the administration."

Still, the problem was clear. The College of Arts and Sciences drew up a $13 million remodeling plan for environmental health and safety updating, in keeping with good contemporary art practices.

The faculty and staff made immediate changes where they were possible. They began to leave the ventilation system on all the time, and to keep windows open as much as possible.

"That improved things dramatically," Young says. The department has eliminated the use of some chemicals such as fiberglass resin and the most noxious sprays. Turpentine has been replaced by Simple Green, a non-toxic product.

The UW's Environmental Health and Safety Department gives a seminar on safe practices for art students each year. The faculty take it as a serious mission to instill awareness of potential hazards.

Young reports there's no more melting wax in the batik studios. When wax overheats, it releases potentially carcinogenic fumes. Cadmium-based paints are used with caution. Eating is forbidden in the studios.

Students used to be sent to the hallways to spray fixative on their drawings, to reduce the level of odors in the studio. That doesn't happen any more, because no ventilation is built into the halls. Fixative, which contains a chemical that can be a nerve poison, can linger in the air for hours. In the bad old days, anyone who walked down the halls could be subjected unwittingly to toxic fumes.

"I tell students not to spray at all," professor Norman Lundin says. "If they still want to do it, I send them outdoors to the loading dock. And no smoking is permitted in the building."

All of those measures are stop-gap; they don't solve the basic problem of the building's inadequacies.

"Potential risks abound in this building," Silbergeld said. "We have a fire extinguishing system hooked up, with no water source. One of our ventilation systems is hooked up to nothing. We have a ventilator shaft with no source.

"The building was never designed to be an art building; it was built as an office building," he said. "But the ventilation is only 60 percent of what an office building should have. We're far off the mark of where studios should be.

"We know the risk level is high. We were quite surprised not to get funding to correct the problems."

Legislature says no

The UW counted on the Legislature to vote the necessary funds to revamp the building. But the Legislature said no.

The School of Art is the largest school in the UW College of Arts and Sciences. Some 3,000 students take classes in the Art Building every day, 1,600 of them in studio courses, and another 1,400 in art history. That's a lot of people exposed to poor air.

Arthur Grossman, associate dean for arts in the College of Arts & Sciences, said the UW is committed to reallocating enough funds to fix the most pressing problems of the ventilation system, and to repair a leak in the roof.

"It has been an extremely difficult process," Grossman said. "Faced with a 5 percent budget cut imposed by the Legislature, we made cuts in consultation with department heads and faculty. None of the decisions was made easily or willingly."

He worries about tax-cutting Propositions 601 and 602, which would impose further budget cuts.

Seven members of the art faculty retired last year. Only five will be replaced. That means one less teacher for painting, and one less for sculpture - the Art School's core programs.

"With only two sculpture teachers in place of three, we'll have to revise the curriculum," said Young. "Beginning art students will no longer have any of their instruction from a sculptor; that is, from an artist who works in three dimensions."

In this round of cost-cutting, it isn't frills that are getting the ax.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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