Artist Damien Hirst is well-known for his eclectic art, notably large pieces encapsulating dead animals in containers of formaldehyde. But it appears his art may be as toxic as it is controversial. While testing a new sensor, scientists recently detected high levels of formaldehyde gas near the artist’s work.
The research, published in Analytical Methods, details the sensor, a bracelet that sends data to smartphones. The scientists tested the sensor in London’s Tate Modern gallery and Beijing’s Summer Palace, and found formaldehyde fumes in both places. In Tate Modern, formaldehyde fumes reached levels of 5 ppm, above the accepted limit of 0.5 ppm. The scientists think formaldehyde gas leaked through sealant on the containers.
Formaldehyde is a confirmed carcinogen, yet it’s more present in our environment than we may realize. According to the EPA, formaldehyde may be found in building materials, resins, paper products, and dish washing liquids, to name a few. We are exposed to it mainly when items containing formaldehyde give off fumes, known as “off-gassing,” and the EPA warns everyone is exposed. Formaldehyde fumes can lead to nosebleeds, coughing, or even nose or mouth cancer over long periods of exposure.
Tate Modern released a statement saying the public was likely not harmed by their exhibit of Hirst’s work. “We do regular testing and our experts tell us that at the levels reported by this journal, your eyes would be streaming and you would be in serious physical discomfort. No complaints were made to us during the show,” they said.
The real issue with Hirst’s artwork isn’t the visitors who may spend only a few minutes with a piece. The concern is for gallery workers, who may spend hours with a piece in areas that may not be well ventilated. One Tate Modern gallery assistant spoke to newspapers and said, “I was in…poor health when I was at the exhibition, but we were working 60 hours a week, and on 12-hour shifts on the weekends, so I put it down to lack of sleep.”
It remains to be seen whether Hirst will continue to exhibit formaldehyde artwork.