Image Making is a Health Hazard

Image making, whether digital or analog, can be a health hazard. Take some steps to protect yourself.
“I note the passing recently of Yousuf Karsh in a Boston hospital,
which only goes to reinforce a theory I have held for some years now,
that  photography is injurious to your health….. nay not only
injurious, but in fact it will kill you. Examine the facts. 
Ansell Adams – dead. Horst P Horst – dead. Robert Mappelthorpe – dead.
Diane Arbus – no longer with us. Julia Margaret Cameron –
deceased.  … the list just goes on and on. It used to worry me,
but now I just go with the flow. We’ve all gotta go somehow, so why not
with a camera to your eye or a hand in a tray of fixer?
Incidentally….Karsh was only 93 when the dark spectre of photography
caught up with him.”. So says Jeff Moorfoot, in a recent Free Radical

Whilst the above quote is meant in a humorous light, it does raise the
interesting question, is photography, and digital image making,  a
health hazard for us and/or the environment? In this article, we’ll
look at this and discover that it is becoming a far more complex
question to answer than it once was.


There are basically two key areas we need to examine:

*    Personal health and safety aspects of being a photographer or related professional, and;

*    Effects on the environment of our activities.

Both these questions are greatly complicated by the fact that
photography is rapidly evolving from a chemical-based industry at the
point of use (film, processing, printing) to an electronic one
(cameras, computers, digital printing) that is chemical based only at
the point of manufacture. So to cover the topic fully we need to
examine both the personal and environmental issues for both traditional
photographic processes and digital ones.

The general perception is that, as we all know, traditional
photographic processes have many issues due to the chemicals used in
processing, but that digital is clean. As we shall see, this is far
from true.

Health & Safety

With conventional photographic processes almost all of the health and
safety issues relate only to those involved in the production and
processing of film and paper. Therefore, professionals who get all this
work done at a pro lab are safe.

For people running a processing facility, whether of commercial scale
or a small creative facility within a studio, the issues boil down to
three things:

*    Maintaining air purity

*    Avoiding physical contact with chemical

*    Appropriate disposal of waste chemicals

Because chemical photographic processes have been around for so long,
and the possible health effects of them and the related photographic
procedures are well know, there is excellent documentation and
management of just what should be done. PURE (Photographic Uniform
Regulations for the Environment) is a division of The Photographic and
Imaging Council of Australia (PICA). Their code of practice for liquid
waste management, for example, spells out the basic requirements:

*    Keep a site log book

*    Get a trade waste agreement/approval/permit or exemption

*    Use the PURE data sheets

*    Operate film or paper processors according to specifications

*    Operate a silver recovery unit

*    Test silver recover at least quarterly

The major chemicals that a photographer could meet in a processing environment that are of concern are:

*    Ammonia (respiratory irritation)

*    Thiosulfate (allergic reactions)

*    Hydroquinone (skin dermatitis and eye problems)

*    Formaldehyde (respiratory irritation, allergic reactions, cancer)

Photographers are far less likely today than previously to run any
in-house film or paper processing. Those that intend to should contact
PURE or go to the PICA website at One
area of possible significant concern is the rise among fine art
photographers in the resurgence of traditional, pre-silver halide,
photographic processes, like cyanotypes and gum bi-chromates. These can
often involve significant amounts of heavy metals and other relatively
poisonous substances. All the books that I have used for such processes
seem to do a good job of spelling out the dangers in these processes.
The advice in the books should be followed carefully. Indeed, fine art
photographic work is most likely to put a photographer in direct
contact with chemicals these days due to the use of tray processing.
Sensible precautions, like rubber gloves, using print tongs and
extremely good ventilation will usually do the trick.

Digital photographic techniques create an environment in which the
photographer is far less likely to come into contact with harmful
chemicals. So is digital completely safe and benign? The answer is
definitely no. Apart from the environmental issues to be discussed
later, there are health and safety issues for photographers.

Computer equipment uses a lot of plastic. Many plastics are
manufactured using formaldehyde, a major respiratory irritant. These
continue to outgas for some time after manufacture. We have probably
all noticed strong smells associated with plastic items soon after they
are removed from their packaging. Since it is not uncommon for
photographers to surround themselves with such equipment, often in
small and poorly ventilated spaces due to covered windows for better
color judgment, we may be exposing ourselves to higher levels than
necessary. Sure, the individual effect on your health from that new PC
may be small, but we are concerned with cumulative exposure over your
working life. Indeed, the new car smell you get when you buy your new
Porsche or Range Rover (don’t all professional photographers have
those) is also caused by this out gassing. Hence the recommendations in
some new car manuals that you drive with windows down for several weeks
after purchase.

Ergonomics is probably the largest widely accepted health risk
associated with computer technology. The key issues here are posture
while using a computer and the repetitive nature and limited movement
range of most of our activities while at a computer. Broadly, the key
things to get right are:

*    Get a really good, ergonomic chair that has arm rests

*    Adjust the height of the chair so that the
circulation to the back of your legs is not being limited by pressure
from the edge of the seat

*    Adjust the seat back to give good lumbar support

*    Adjust the keyboard and mouse height so that there
is a greater than 90 degree angle between your upper and lower arms. In
other words your wrists and hands should be lower than your elbow

*    Adjust the monitor height so that the top of the
screen is at or slightly below eye level. This puts the centre of the
screen at a natural slightly downward look

*    Take lots of breaks

*    Do some stretching and use a stress release ball to work the finger muscles.

If you need them, get glasses. Many people find it useful to have their
optometrist make up a pair of glasses specifically for computer use.
Contact lens users need to remember to blink more, as there is a
tendency to blink less when staring at a computer screen. This dries
out the eyes and can cause increased irritation. I would also be
cautious of the extreme tendency to put computers in very dark, grey or
black painted rooms, in the quest for better color accuracy. Sure,subdued lighting helps, as does neutral surroundings, but don’t overdo
it. I have found that too extreme contrast between a bright screen and
very dark surroundings causes eye stress.

Less definite health and safety concerns around computer equipment
exist regarding radio frequency radiation emitted by the equipment. I
would presume that most of you have been following the debate about
mobile or cell phone safety. Whilst still in the early days, there
appears to be enough new solid and independent research coming out
suggesting the possibility of health issues as to advocate the use of
hands free devices where possible. What is almost never discussed is
that wireless networking products, that allow you to connect computers
over some distance within a studio without wires, could have similar
effects, and possibly worse because of the continuous exposure over
long periods of time, even if the actual power levels may be lower. The
other radiation concern involves computer monitors. All now on sale in
most countries have good shielding in place for the user. However, be
wary of situations where a person is located behind or to the side of
someone else’s monitor.

Remember that we are all facing a lifetime of use of, and exposure to,
digital technology. Even very small effects can accumulate over a whole
lifetime. Sure we have all learned, after asbestos, cigarette smoking
and Mad Cow Disease, among a whole list of others, that there can be a
significant difference between what scientists and public health
officials say, and reality. A process of sensible limitation of how
much we expose ourselves to new technologies could be in our long-term
health interests. I am not advocating a Luddite approach, but rather a
sensible caution to things that we will be exposed to all our working
(at least) lives and for which long-term experience is not yet

Environmental Effects

The environmental effects of conventional photographic processing
appear to be well understood. Small quantities of photographic
chemicals, such as produced by home tray processing, seem to be well
handled by the sewerage system. Thus, permits are usually not required
at that level. For commercial scale operations there are a number of
requirements which vary depending on the local government concerned.
Most require permits, silver recovery to reduce the amount of
discharged silver to minute quantities and appropriately operated and
maintained processing equipment whose output is either collected and
disposed of or flushed into the sewerage through any necessary
balancing tanks (to correct Ph levels). The PURE group of PICA can
advise any photographers wanting  to install new processing
facilities in-house, as can the AIPP and ACMP, or ask a photographer
with an existing installation similar to the one you want to install. I
suspect few photographers will be installing new processing labs in

The photographic industry as a whole has been making significant
efforts to reduce any use of problematic chemicals, and to also reduce
greenhouse gas emissions and water usage at its manufacturing
facilities, at least in the first world. Of course, one does need to be
careful that manufacturing environmental issues are not just
transferred to the second and third world.

That brings us to the mass of computer equipment, printers, batteries
and such that we use. There are two issues here: manufacture and
disposal. The computer industry is hardly clean at the manufacturing
stage. Semiconductor chip manufacturing uses large amounts of water and
significant amounts of highly dangerous and carcinogenic chemicals,
like organic solvents. Various problems with contaminated ground water
and high cancer rates may be a consequence of chip making activities.
Even the assembly of computers and peripherals is not very clean, with
plastics being manufactured and the use of wave soldering systems using
lead-based solders. None of these things directly affects our
environment here in Australia because of the lack of any real
semiconductor industry here and the fact that most computer assembly
uses major components manufactured elsewhere.

The big, burning topics at the moment are end of life cycle and
recycling, and removing hazardous chemicals from their construction.

As usual, Europe is way ahead of everyone with regard to this. Spurred
on by pending legislation in several member countries that could affect
the Single Market, the EU has developed a policy on waste from
electrical and electronic equipment (WEE). This directive comes into
force on 1st of January 2007 and requires the substitution of mercury,
lead, hexavalent chromium, cadmium and polybrominated biphenyls and
polybrominated diphenyl ethers brominated flame retarders. As a
consequence of this WEE Directive individual member countries have been
examining this issue and producing their own directives, such as the
ROHS Directive from the British Dept. of Trade and Industry. It is
likely that the impact of the EU adoption of this WEE Directive will
result in the effective elimination of these chemicals in new computer
equipment in Australia, since very little is manufactured purely for
the Australian market. Internationally manufacturers are moving to
modify their production processes to meet the EU requirements. The
major one for computers is the removal of lead, which is used in the
solder that connects components on circuit boards together.

Where most countries will have to legislate to gain any benefit is in
the area of computer recycling and end of lifecycle destruction. In the
just released Fourth Annual Computer Report Card, prepared by Silicon
Valley Toxics Coalition, they report companies of double standards,
being good corporate citizens in Europe where they are forced to by
legislation and doing little where there are no laws to force them. In
Japan and Europe, most computer and related companies have product
return policies, where an item is returned to the manufacturer at the
end of its useful life. The new WEE Directive prohibits the companies
from dumping in landfills and from exporting the waste computers to
third world countries. Yet in the U.S., where there is no such
restriction, between 50 and 80% of electronic waste meant for recycling
is exported to the third world. There, disposal and recycling methods
are causing massive environmental and health damage. Australia
currently has a Computer & Peripherals Material Project pilot
program underway but at this stage, there is no compulsion by
legislation. Amanda Myers, Policy Officer in the Industry Partnership
Branch of Environment Australia (EA) said that the response from
computer companies in Australia has been “very, very slow”. At the end
of 1999 the computer industry was to provide details to EA on take
back, recycling, etc. Three industry bodies were to respond. Two failed
to and the other submission was rejected. Ms. Myers commented that
legislation is being looked at as one option. She commented that while
some computer companies are making efforts, most seem guilty of double
standards, in that in their home countries, due to tough legislation
they behave well, but have failed to show any initiative where not
compelled to.


Despite the gloomy prognostications that opened this article,
photography does appear to be becoming a safer profession. Its
environmental impact however, can be just as serious, if
not more so,
as we transition from a chemical-based to an electronic-based industry.
As always, personal responsibility and demanding corporate
responsibility from our suppliers, will keep us all safer.

Note: whilst every effort has been made in the preparation
of this
article, the author and publishers can not be held accountable for the
advice given. Please seek appropriate advice about your own work

 Item  Chemicals Present  Disposal Method
 Batteries  Heavy metals esp. Cadmium in Rechargeable Ni-Cd’s and Lead in lead-acid  Collect for industrial waste disposal
 Computers and electronic equipment  Lead (in solder), other heavy and trace metals, plastics  Recycle by return to manufacturer or special recycling

 Plastics  Formaldehyde (may be out gassed) Recycle
 Digital papers  No major known issues  Paper recycle
 Digital inks for inkjets  No known issues Rubbish collection
 Toner for laser printers  No known issues  Recycle (toner refillers)
 Film  No known issues  Rubbish collection
 Photographic chemicals  Formaldehyde, thiosulphates, ammonia, hydroquinone, silver and others Industrial waste agreement, collection or sewer (with treatment), Silver recycling 

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