Metal (lead) type handling safety

I have been teaching printmaking including letterpress at a college for 22 years. We’re due to get a renovated bldg. and the admin. wants us to throw out all the lead type. They based their safety concerns on an industrial hygeinist’s report which was riddled with misconceptions. A major one is that I’m full of lead. Not true, I have blood tests to prove it. My blood tests below normal US averages for lead! I teach every student to use tweezers, wash hands, not break the type. I need to hear from schools and shops about how they handle safety misconceptions. We already use photo poly. and wood and linoleum, of course, I’m talking about how not to throw out 4 cabinets of sorted complete beautiful lead type. Give me ammo, facts, OSHA reports, anything. Please help.

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Ra- If you do a search here, you’ll find a posting that I wrote a few months ago on just that subject. Essentially, metalic lead type is safe to handle if you wash your hands afterward, and don’t eat it. The dangerous forms of lead are the various lead oxides formerly used in paint and industry. If your hygeinist thinks that handling lead type is dangerous then he (or she) is not very well educated on the subject, and should be “called to the carpet” on the validity of his report. Such “mistakes” are very damaging to our entire field of endeavor.

I recommend that you study the “Metals Handbook” which is an industrial reference and contains mountains of data on the subject. A copy should be available in the reference section of your local library.

The UK governments guidelines can be found by doing a Google for “indg305” This is a small leaflet in pdf format.
Smelting of lead for typecasting is much more hazardous than merely handling the type, and guidance on good practise can also be found on the HSE website.

I’m sorry to hear that they had such a knee-jerk reaction. I guess the key is to make them realize that ‘lead’ type isn’t lead, but rather, an alloy, and is much safer. Furthermore, they are conflating lead oxide (found in paint), and hard type metal. Factually, they need to know that you are discussing an alloy, not an oxide…in the same way that hexavalent chromium is deadly, but stainless steel is in every house. Even if you melt the alloy, the tin and antimony oxidize before the lead, and the dross is the only real hazard.

But I’m preaching to the choir here, and I’m a bad singer. Here is an old BPress thread on the subject:

It has some links to studies.

Perhaps you can use their own study against them. In all likelihood, they will talk about the risk of ingestion via specific paths. Fumes are a non-issue, the little bit of dust/grime on your type isn’t lead (though they might not believe it), and dermal absorption isn’t possible, because you are talking about a rather hard alloy. That leaves oral ingestion. If they want to make that argument, you might want to ask them whether they like lead oxide or organotins in their drinking water, because they are definitely getting one or the other every time they open the tap. Your students aren’t going to eat type.

Another route would be to talk to a couple typefounders, and put your admins in contact with them. Several are noted academics.

The BLS put out a study called “Hygiene of the Printing Trades” before WWII, but I’ve never read it, only seen it in footnotes.

There was also a study done by one of the old printer’s unions about lead poisoning, and they found some ridiculously low number…like 6 cases of some 50,000 members, and some were due to non-job related sources. I don’t remember where I ran across that, but I will look. Perhaps it was ITU, and perhaps it was self-serving…

If you are going to ‘throw it out’, a little notice and an address might be greatly appreciated by someone…Otherwise, good luck!

Yes, it’s always good to call it “type metal” and not “lead”…
I was once worried about the OSHA inspector seeing all the Linotype pigs stacked up. My wife suggested that I spray paint them gold.
Several shops I’ve worked in kept a fingernail brush by the sink.

DBurnette…. yes, that particular post is brilliant! ;)

Seriously, the problem of public perception of our trade is important. I agree that we should resolve to never call our type “lead type”, we should indeed use the term “metal type”…. and take every opportunity to educate folks. The more they know, the less likely they are to make misjudgements about the dangers.

There was a gentleman who set up a booth annually at the Old Threshers Reunion with his family and they had a variety of molds and he would hand-cast little lead toys for sale. He seemed to do a pretty brisk business. Any letterpress printer could see that he was melting down linecasting slugs and pigs, but the dreaded LEAD word was not on any of his signage. He advertised his pieces as being cast from “printer’s pewter.” He home was in one of the towns that got wiped-out by flooding last summer and he did not show up at the reunion last fall.

Printer’s lead or printer’s metal: it’s bulk is lead, and there’s no way I’m going to resile from the fact!
Changing names won’t avoid the fact.
I’ve been handsetting type and working my ludlows and linos since 1966, AND never used ?tweezers?!!. or rubber gloves for that fact! I’ve never been sick or affected by my working of type or machines in the printing industry.
I always wash my hands thoroughly, regularly during the day, before eating and after I’ve been to the toilet. Washing hands and under nails also assists in the efficient and speedy ability to be fast and sensitive when setting.
It’s common sense. There’s more danger to people who squat or sit on pavements, smoke and drink from common utensils. Obviously, plenty of fresh air and good hygiene and a good dose of commonsense is all that is required.
I can only imagine that tweezers are used so as not to touch the type when setting, that is a laughable technique. Any user of tweezers for typesetting would starve if they were piece workers, not to mention damaging the type.
It appears my trade has been infiltrated by a lot of wimps!
William Amer, Australian

Okay- so my husband and I have also started cleaning cases of type that have been “abandoned” for our hobby shop- there are two that look pretty scary. The type is crusted with yellowish- white stuff. I am assuming that the lead has oxidized- is that a safe assumption? And if so is that still safe to clean in a normal matter? All the other type still has it’s nice shine- not sure what happened to these.
I understand that handling type in the normal matter is safe- but what about this stuff?

VJ- you could be right in your assumption. It your lead type is growing a yellow or white fur, then it is possibly oxidizing. This can occur when contaminants such as acids (soda pop, cleaning suppies and so forth) are spilled into the drawer.

It could ALSO be that the type is a non-standard alloy, or not even lead based at all. Magnesuim and a few other metals that have been used for type through the years can oxidize with a white powder.

However….. if you wear gloves while cleaning it, you should be able to remove the oxidized powder without a serious risk. However, I would make sure not to ingest it, or blow it into the air where it could be breathed in.

Thank you Winking Cat- I will try not to eat it…
Now what do you think about cleaning the stuff- what precautions should I take with the dirty water and cleaning solutions after cleaning it?

For cleaning, I’d avoid anything acidic or more than slightly basic…..that would produce more oxides. Instead I’d only use a simple liquid soap to clean the type. Then I’d rinse it well.

Most of us would simply let the wash water run down the drain…. which I admit would not be the best course of action, environmentally speaking. A better solution would be to save the water in a bucket, and let it evaporate away. Then take the remaining solids, if there are any, to your local hazardous material facility. At most it’ll be a few ounces. Most cities have a place where you can bring it.