[Alt-photo] Dichromate Poisoing

Christina Z. Anderson christinazanderson at gmail.com
Tue Oct 24 01:04:59 UTC 2017

Dear Charles,

Thank you for your concern, about my “irresponsible and dangerous” behavior. Beware, lengthy response...

I struggle with this issue all the time, and not just for dichromated colloids.

Years ago on this list, someone (Richard Sullivan?) said that industry could dispose of dichromates up to 2 kilos into the environment, if I remember correctly, per DAY, so I lessened my guilt thinking that 2 kilos over years of use was paltry in comparison. Dichromates are used extensively in other industries (tanning? furniture?) so an alt lab at school or at home is a small percentage of the whole.

Until the US bans dichromates, I will probably continue teaching dichromated colloids. However, I mix the 10% dichromate solutions myself (gone from 30% to 10% over the years) and stress the dangers of dichromates to my students constantly. 

I am willing to accept a “shelf life” to the dichromated colloid processes; they may disappear during my lifetime. My alt professor from way back when is 80 and also taught us with concern twenty years ago. He now struggles with bladder cancer.

We use the same two trays to leach out all dichromates from all prints in our alt lab, and Risk and Safety disposes of that dirty water at the end of the semester after neutralizing it. That is two trays over the course of a semester. Risk and Safety has no problem with this, to date, and Risk and Safety is spring loaded about everything. For example, Risk and Safety, about a decade ago, told me I could no longer teach mordançage in the school, because, as you probably know, if you pour hydrogen peroxide onto copper chloride, it’ll release toxic chlorine gas. I consulted with four chemists about the way I mix the chemistry, one of them the retired head of Risk and Safety, and all said that in the way I use the chemistry, there is no risk. Thus, I teach mordançage at my home, in my garage, OUTSIDE, and all students who VOLUNTARILY want to learn it (it is optional) see exactly how it is mixed or they cannot participate. They have to sign an agreement on doing the process and how they will practice it in the future, OUTSIDE, etc. etc.

But Risk and Safety has not said I can no longer teach dichromated processes. I find that…interesting.

And with our new alt lab at MSU, I had to list all chemistry I would use in it, and the lab was built, and ventilated, with that in mind.

I also, in my extensive dichromate research, saw all references to dichromate poisoning, and ulcerating sores.

I am preparing to teach a research based class intensive on cyanotype Spring semester, and again I am facing the same issue. There are acids frequently used in cyanotype development. Sulfamic, oxalic, ferric chloride, hydrochloric, nitric, as well as citric. I am in the process of determining if I can, in fact, in good conscience, teach sulfamic and hydrochloric, given sulfamic comes in a powder from the hardware store, and hydrochloric is available already diluted in muriatic acid, and a mere few mls of it will suffice in a liter of water. But can I trust that the students will mix it properly? It is one thing to teach chemists. It is another to teach students. It may be that I stay with just citric.

All of my personal work and most of what I teach (aside from my digital InDesign class or my Night/Low Light Photography) is chemically-based photography. Therefore, I am exposed to it far more than those around me.

I am concerned lately about how much face time students have with computers and cell phones. What will this do to their eyes in the future? Are we trading one bad (chemical processes) for another (computers)?

I personally worry much more about the toxins released by big companies such as Monsanto into our environment, how it has affected our produce, wheat in particular, and how that has affected me with a thyroid auto-immune disorder. Which, btw, started long before I was a photographer.

I grew up when DDT was regularly sprayed, weekly, by airplanes, in Minnesota summers. I grew up playing with mercury balls on the floor (my dad was a scientist and his laboratory was the whole basement of our very large home, teeming with 8 children). My Dad was a cigar smoker, inside, and I used to sit on his lap while he smoked. I grew up with mercury fillings. Mercuric chloride on cuts and scrapes. Teaching iodine toning in the bw lab. A student doing uranium toning. I grew up with cases of coke, sprite, and other sugary drinks as our beverages of choice with no thought to sugar consumption, or caffeine for that matter.

I worry about the friends and family that have brain tumors, breast cancer, etc., for no apparent reason, and they are not photographers. 

So I do think about these things. All the time. Especially as I age.


> On Oct 23, 2017, at 2:12 PM, Charles Berger via Alt-photo-process-list <alt-photo-process-list at lists.altphotolist.org> wrote:
> Chris,
> It is distressing to learn that because you already have a large quantity
> of dichromate you would continue using it  (along with your students) even
> if it was banned in the US as it is in the EU.   Dichromate is a toxic
> poison and proven carcinogen, and to encourage its continued use
> (especially in a school setting) is both dangerous and irresponsible.
> The argument that so little is used in the photo processes that it is not a
> concern, lacks an understanding of the health hazards of its use.  A brief
> review of  “alt “ videos on YouTube will reveal many examples of
> practitioners using dichromate without gloves or the necessary ventilation
> to prevent dermal contact, ingestion or vapor inhalation.
> Although a Google search for Dichromate Poisoning in photography will come
> up with references dating back to the early 1900’s, recent books on Carbon,
> Gum and etc, lack any meaningful discussion or reference to the subject.  On
> the contrary, the casual/improper use of this chemical can be seen in
> photographs in the recent The Carbon Print where dichromate solutions are
> prepared and used (often with bare hands) in the family kitchen.
> There are compelling reasons why this chemical has been banned in the EU
> and its use is the basis for the EPA’s H&S Guide for Art Department and
> Schools Advisory (
> https://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyPDF.cgi/P1003I69.PDF?Dockey=P1003I69.PDF) that
> “” it would seem advisable to avoid Historic photographic processes
> altogether…(without) the strictest safety training and following very
> thorough precautions and safety routines”.
> Charles
> _______________________________________________
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