Doctor/Chemist in the house? : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

Hi Folks,

I've been involved with darkroom printing for about 10 years, and I've definately developed a sensitivity to the fumes from the chemistry. It seems to be getting worse. I've improved the ventilation and started using an acid gas respirator to cut out the sulphur dioxide, and this has helped, but its still not great. Does anyone on the forum know exactly which parts of the B&W process cause the most harmful by-products, what they might be, and what exactly they do to the body? I've been suffering from light-headed dizzyness and cannot spend more than a few minutes without wearing the respirator near open trays without a reaction. I know the answer ultimately might be..."go digital", but I'm just curious what might be happening, as my heart is breaking at the thought of letting silver printing go (A personal crisis!). Any suggestions would be welcome. Thanks a lot,

Chris Jordan (Boston)

-- Chris Jordan (Boston) (, April 28, 2002


Chris The main inhalation problem is sulphur dioxide from fixing baths, it's created by thiosulphate (sodium or ammonium) decomposing after standing for long periods. Also fixer contamination from acid stop baths creates sulphur dioxide, for this reason I use a plain water stop and frequently change it.

I too have suffered from chemical hypersensitivty but from a different source, it gave me asthma and once the source was discovered and removed I slowly recovered. It took my lungs 3 years to recover but I could have easily become a chronic sufferer if the right steps hadn't been taken, so you have to take this very seriously.

I have a good book called "Health Hazards in Photography" by Susan Shaw, 1983 ISBN 0-933286-35-X (cloth) ISBN 0-933286-37-6 (paper), the book details chemical hazards and would be worth getting hold of if you can.

I was given the book by a guy retiring from photography, like you he had sensitivity problems from the fumes. After reading the book he got an expert in to design a proper ventilation system for his darkroom, once installed there was no fume smell and headache and other problems never came back.

-- Clayton Tume (, April 28, 2002.

Chris: You have been given knowledgeable medical advice, now for some photo thoughts. It is understandable that the artist be in love with his art. By association he may also come to be in love with his tools. There is the problem, the tools are not the art. I am a chemist and not a chemophobe but I know that chemicals need to be treated with the respect that a snake handler gives his charges. With proper care they are OK. However there is no reason to persist when other, wonderful and safer alternatives are making it possible to do photography without the wet stuff. In an exhibit, looking at the beautiful large prints from David Muench, digital became a reality for me. All those exquisite prints were digitally processed from film and the photographer never had to come into contact with chemicals. Those were handled in a lab properly set up for the purpose. Lots of people in this forum hold dearly to the old ways. They are the soldiers that will guard the fort till the end. They distrust the new digital world as much as people did mistrust "synthetic or artificial" ice when refrigerators appeared in the market. But digital and refrigerators will be around for a long time. Exploring new ways to creativity should be a wonderful experience and may free you from having to use things that can hurt you. Give digital a try. If not, heed Clayton's advice. Hope you are OK and take care.

-- Julio Fernandez (, April 28, 2002.

I don't think it's a distrust of the digital world for all of us.

I'm new to both large format and darkroom work and find that I genuinely enjoy the manual, "analog" nature of the work. I'm not dexterous enough to draw or paint and the opportunity to create something with my hands, through a traditional process is very rewarding. I'm pretty sure I'm not afraid of computers though since I pay the bills by being an engineering director at an Internet infrastrstructure company during the day... :-)

-- Dean Cookson (, April 28, 2002.

fumes? I use citric acid stop bath and have used a plain fix in the past, which consists only of hypo and sulfite. There are no noxious fumes with this system. I now use rapid fix(because I'm impatient) with excellent ventilation (2 muffin fans directly in back of the fix tray, vented directly outside, and I keep the tray covered unless my paws are in it), but I'm ready to go back to the plain fix if I ever need to.

I used to love chemical smells, especially acetic acid stop, but not anymore. I also used to smoke (no more), which I think increases sensitivity over time.

-- Wayne (, April 28, 2002.

Thanks for the advice, so far. I am a graphic designer by day, and so am quite familiar with the digital tools. I see their merits and am planning to explore them in relation to my art. I was hoping this thread wouldn't turn into the usual analog versus digital debate, no disrespect intended. I am a fairly serious B&W printer and this problem is causing a fair amount of distress as I am amidst sizable printing project, getting ready for an exhibit and a few sales (smiles). I am hoping to aleviate the problem as best as possible. I've just ordered the Overexposure book. Thanks, Clayton for the info. Exploring new methods is certainly a good idea, although its hard to switch overnight, especially when one derives a good amount of enjoyment and pride from their printing practice. Thanks again,


-- Chris Jordan (Boston) (, April 28, 2002.

Chris and others

I didn't realise but the book title was wrong!

should read

"OVEREXPOSURE Health Hazards in Photography"


-- Clayton Tume (, April 28, 2002.


I'm no expert but I do understand that the human reaction to chemicals is one that gradually gathers toxins until a threshold is reached and once at that point, there's not much you can do besides what you're doing. I've reached my threshold for metol and have to be very careful at this point with contact of MQ developers.

Lloyd Erlick (Great piece about his work in PhotoTechniques) has some interesting alternatives that might help you bypass the chems that are irritating you. His website is one of the best I've ever discovered and the page you want would be; http://www.heylloyd. com/technicl/plain.htm

Hope you can get a handle on it. Like you I'm somewhat familiar with both venues, but for me, the computer is where I "stress/work", and the dark room is where I relax.

-- Jim Galli (, April 29, 2002.

Before you go about trying lots of different "cures" or changing to digital, perhaps you should spend some time isolating the exact chemical component that you are having a reaction to. There are many irritants and substances to which you could be having or have developed a reaction to. If Metol is your problem, there are plenty of developer formulas without it, if acid fumes, that can be taken care of as well, if hydrogen sulfide gas, that too can be eliminated. In short, diagnose before treating and don't throw the baby out with the bath water (or the used fix!). Regards ;^D)

-- Doremus Scudder (, April 29, 2002.

Chris, It may not be just fumes,I`ve found that a good set of tongs and thin rubber gloves have been extremely helpful for limiting chemical exposure. Be well.

-- Steve Clark (, April 29, 2002.

Chris, Go on line and find all the MSDS sheets for the chemicals you are using, read them and see what u can change in your dark room now, then take them to your doctor, they will help with you.


-- Bill Jefferson (, April 29, 2002.

Chris, Scott from Lynnfield (just north of you). Sprint Chemistry is a bit less noxious as far as smells go. Their fixer is ammonium based and their stop bath is buffered with vanilla and ALOT less problematic than Kodaks! Your ventilation (hoods over the chemistry helps) should be cranked up so you shouldn't need the respirator. You can make a vent hood out of foamcore (better to use some form of plexiglas for permanence) to use over your chem trays. I can send you jpegs of the massive ones that we have at work to give you an indication of of something you can fashion if you want.

-- Scott Walton (, April 29, 2002.

Something to remember:

If you can smell it, it is getting into your lungs.

Sincerely, A Darkroom Hound

-- Sandy Sorlien (, April 29, 2002.

Chris et al: should mention that smell is absolutely no way to gauge the toxicity of chemicals. Remember, Carbon Monoxide is deadly but totally odour-free. Other substances have extremely low detection limits as for example esters. Such substances are detectable in a few parts per million, yet many of these esters are practically harmless in all but very high concentrations. One example is amyl acetate, so called banana oil. Other esters are found in fruits and alcoholic beverages, such as wine and rum. Some substances like acetic acid have a pungent smell and are only mild irritants at low concentrations. "Glacial" acetic acid, i.e. the pure form on the other hand is quite toxic and should be handled with care. However, everytime you add vinegar to the french fries you are breathing and consuming acetic acid. The fries probably will do you more harm. Also, another poster made a very good point regarding the cumulative nature of exposure. To that I would add that you can become sensitized , i.e. allergic to a particular substance by repeated exposure, even after there is no trace of the substance in your body. If you have questions about chemicals, a good source of ready reference online is the "Merck Index". There are other sources used by professionals but I am not aware they are available online. In my experience, toxicology is best handled by toxicologists. General medical practitioners are less likely to help you so taking the MSDSs to your doctor can be of value only if he/she refers you to a toxicologist, unless of course the chemical in question is of the garden variety. Have a healthy spring.

-- Julio Fernandez (, April 29, 2002.

Chris: Are you using enough air inlet area into your darkroom? Many times photographers will install a good exhaust fan and then no way for the air to get into the darkroom that the fan takes out. I found that in my darkroom, that created a partial vaccuum that made the fumes worse. A fresh air vent on the opposite side of the darkroom made things much better. Also, I turn on the exhaust fan and leave the door open for a few minutes before starting work to insure a supply of fresh air.


-- Doug Paramore (, April 29, 2002.

Hi Chris, I am air conditioning installer/contractor and I just finshed a 6'x9' darkroom and I installed a inline fan that pulls around 150 cfm of air. I put the vent over the sink where the fix goes and have the air inlet coming from under the sink so the air raps around to make a air curtain. Also there is a duct from the a/c unit that also helps move air. It seems to be working well and there is some smell but with all the fresh air coming in I am happy with it. If you need any help please let me know, good luck David.

P.s. I also work with digital.

-- David (, April 29, 2002.

Chris, you've been given good advice. It would be useful to find out which chemicals you're sensitive to. Some chemicals are toxic and require a long time to eliminate. For some exposures, the damage is cumulative--adding insult to injury. Some chemicals cause sensitivity reactions--get rid of the chemical and the reaction goes away. It depends a great deal on the chemical, and the nature of the reaction depends a great deal on the individual.

I used to work with an individual who was very sensitive to acetic acid. It caused breathing problems. I found other products without acetic acid I could use to achieve the desired results. If I needed to work with acetic acid, I did so at night, and in the hood, after she was gone.

As mentioned, there are ways to get around many of the smells, either by changing chemistry or by changing ventilation. The hood idea is a very good one. I'd start by finding the offending chemical.


-- Dave Willis (, May 01, 2002.

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