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Safe carving? GN will study lung health of Inuit carvers

The territorial government wants to know if carving dust is harmful to artists.



IQALUIT ó An Iqaluit carver sitting outside on a plastic crate presses a power tool against a piece of stone. A small cloud of dust rises as he carves. He’s strategically placed himself so the dust blows away from his face.

Safety is of little concern to him, he says, as he tries to carve the stone into the shape of a bird.

“You just have to know how to use your blade the right way so the dust blows away from your face,” said the man, who didn’t want to reveal his name.

He said he doesn’t wear a mask to protect himself because it fogs up in the cold.

Henry Kudluk, another Inuit carver, thinks not wearing a mask is dangerous.

Kudluk practices what he calls “safe art.”

Originally from Coral Harbour, Kudluk works out of a ventilated studio in Ottawa. He wears a mask to protect himself from the stone dust. He also gears up in gloves, ear muffs and coveralls.

Kudluk’s heard too many tales of carvers suffering from lung problems to take any chances. His concern for safety has led him on trips with the Inuit Art Foundation to promote safe carving practices.

On his visits to Nunavut, he’s come across many carvers who do little to protect their lungs from the dust. Kudluk has heard stories of carvers stuffing tissues up their nose to block the dust. But it was rare, he said, to see carvers sporting masks.

“I find that a lot of people up North don’t wear a mask… Some of them are embarrassed to wear one, some think it’s uncool or unmanly so they don’t bother to wear one,” Kudluk said. “But for some carvers the masks are just not available [in the stores].”

Carving dust unsafe?

The Inuit Art Foundation has been advocating carving safety for more than a decade. For years, the foundation pushed the government of the Northwest Territories to fund a health study and to provide safety masks to carvers.

The foundation got its wish this month. The Nunavut health department announced that researchers will travel to Baker Lake, Gjoa Haven, Taloyoak and Cape Dorset to study the lung health of stone carvers.

“Artists in general haven’t been very careful about this. It’s only been in the last 10 or 12 years that artists anywhere have started to realize that materials they are using can be hazardous,” said Marybelle Mitchell, executive director of the Inuit Art Foundation.

Health professionals and some artists began looking at the health of stone carvers as early as the 1980s, when artists switched from working with files and hammers to power tools. The power tools produce much more dust.

Mitchell said the IAF launched a campaign in the early 1990s to inform stone carvers that, without safety gear, their work could harm them.

The foundation designed a poster of a carver wearing a mask, with the slogan “Practice safe art.” Mitchell said she’s still pushing the safety issue.

“They have to dress as if they are doing some industrial work, and essentially they are. They’re using equipment and dust is flying around, they’re breathing it in, chips can fly into their eyes…” she said in an interview from the foundation’s office in Ottawa.

The Inuit Art Foundation has also had doctors come in to give art students seminars on the possible links between lung problems and carving.

Mitchell said there’s no concrete proof that carving causes lung problems. But, she said, many suspect the dust produced during carving is responsible for lung cancer and other respiratory diseases.

Many artists with respiratory problems

“It’s very clear that artists are having a lot of respiratory problems,” she said. Mitchell said she’s glad to see a health study on carvers has finally got the go-ahead. Dr. Patrick Hessel agrees.

The epidemiology professor at the University of Alberta has heard stories of carvers with health problems since the 1990s. He recently got the news that Health Canada has agreed to fund the $400,000 study.

In co-operation with health centres in Baker Lake, Gjoa Haven, Taloyoak and Cape Dorset, Hessel’s team will try to determine if the clouds of dust produced during carving are harmful to artists’ health. The research has already begun in Baker Lake.

“It’s a dusty job and in most places when people have jobs that are that dusty somebody has looked to see if there are any ill affects. Nobody has done that with the carvers,” Hessel said. “We’re not assuming that we are going to find any problems. We’re just taking a look.”

In each community they visit, researchers will compare the lung health of a group of carvers with that of non-carvers.

Participants will be given a questionnaire that asks if they’ve had any lung problems, if they are smokers, how long they’ve been carving and if they use any safety equipment.

Participants will also undergo a lung test that measures how much air they breath out of their lungs as well as a chest x-ray.

Researchers will go to areas where carvers are working to measure dust levels and collect samples.

New safety mask?

Hessel said if the results show that carvers are experiencing lung problems, then the next step is to design a safety mask.

The masks used by artists in other parts of the country aren’t suitable to Nunavut carvers because they fog up in cold weather.

The key, he said, is to design a mask that will work in the cold and provide protection.

The researchers expect their field work to take at least three months. Hessel said a report will likely come out in the fall.

“It’s a very important study for Nunavut because carving is so much a part of the culture and the economy of Nunavut. But it’s also practiced in Alaska, it’s practiced in Siberia… so it’s a study that has local relevance and international relevance as well.”

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