Thursday, March 12, 2009

Mutterings on the Mutter (thats mooter to you ter)

One of the side trips of our 36 hours in Philadelphia was a return to the Mutter Museum, part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. It is a small and gruesome display of medical maladies and oddities collected over the years. As was the case for me and my wife, the blown glass display cases and low lighting, not to mention the subject, leads the visitor towards feeling a little woozy. I was interested to go for a second time because they had a small exhibit on the effects of lead on humans throughout history.

I use lead white paint in the studio, but not so much that I should worry about it. However, I was interested to read about painters and makers of paint back in the day who became ill due to their exposure to lead. One symptom of their disease was limp wrists, leading me to speculate on the origin of the phrase "limp-wristed artist." There was also a section on the association of lead with Saturn and melancholia. This in mind, I read Goya's painting anew -this time it is melancholy devouring his offspring, melancholy destroying what it created.

As the exhibition winds down it crosses into lead as a poison and then its use as a pesticide. What? Yep, pesticide. Funny, so often you hear that pesticides were a product of WWI or WWII chemical industries. But previous generations were looking for pesticides of their own and lead was brewed into lead arsenate for their purpose. Apparently, we in the good ol' U S of A have used lead arsenate as late as 1988. Lead makes for a great pesticide partly because it sticks real good to the leaves, just as lead-based paints stick real good to the trim. As mentioned in a previous post, lead stays put in the soil and is taken up by leafy greens more than fruiting bodies.

A final display shows Mexican candy (lead sweetener???) and mentions that lead arsenate is still used in Mexico as a pesticide (but where else???). One thing I never understand is why all those kids are eating lead paint chips. I had no idea that lead mixed with acetic acid (lead acetate) created a sweet tasting substance. Anything sweet is good to a kid. But the adults, they even used it in wine!!! And skin creams, but that's another story.

By the way, as a painter I use the white pigment titanium dioxide more than the lead or zinc whites. This titanium pigment ends up in skin creams too, but also food products like cream cheese, mozzarella, and other must-be-super-white foods.

Recently I received a comment on my Bio page from a professor , Dr. Joshua (Zhongqi) Cheng, Director of the Environmental Sciences Analytical Center at CUNY Brooklyn. In our brief exchange, he expressed interest in getting the word out about his lab.

In a subsequent email, Dr. Cheng told me:

"My lab can analyze heavy metals for all kinds of samples (soil, plants, vegetables, sediments, etc.). Another lab I associate with can do hydrocarbons. The price for heavy metals are $10-20 per sample, depending on the number of samples."

These are exceptional prices for these services and done locally, supporting Brooklyn College employees. For those of us who garden in front and back yards with questionable histories, like the storage of CCA and Creosote treated telephone poles for instance, this can help create some peace of mind. I have asked Dr. Cheng for a list of lab services and pricing. If he agrees, I will add this info to the RESOURCES listing. I plan on sending him some samples of my soil soon.


  1. The limp wrist thing is SO interesting!

    I now tremble at the sight of leafy greens. Leady greens.

  2. Of course we know what it came to mean, but really I speculate...

    Lead Belly


If I do not respond to your comment right away, it is only because I am busy pulling out buckthorn, creeping charlie, and garlic mustard...