Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Risks of Working in a Rock Shop

 Q: Greetings,
     I work for a small business rock shop that carries a very large variety of gemstones and minerals. I have wondered for quite some time if I should be concerned about exposure so certain elements like lead, arsenic etc. We handle mostly everything without gloves or the use of dust masks.
     I am now pregnant and even more concerned about this. I know that doctors and other professionals will advise the use of safety precautions regardless. My question is not that if we should use precautions, because I know that we should anyways. The question I am asking you, is if there is plausible serious risk through skin contact and inhalation? Do you know of any risks, are you able to provide specific examples of situations where problems have occurred /or might occur?
     One example is of the handling of iron pyrite. It leaves behind black residue (we do use gloves for this) and creates a strong smell and dust in the air. Am I exposing myself to something serious here?
     Also, I’ve heard of a new fad where the folks who believe in metaphysical properties of stones are putting them in their drinking water. I found this alarming. 
     I look forward to your response! Thank you for your time.
     Thank You,
- Stacey S.
 
 
 
A: This is a VERY important query, and kudos to you for asking - and for your  determination to protect your unborn baby.

YES. There are minerals that are really dangerous: realgar and orpiment have mercury in them, for example. You can look up Minamata Syndrome to get an idea of how bad these could be to a fetus: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minamata_disease 

YES. There are various forms of asbestos that kill - literally. My father died a premature death from lung cancer. The biopsy showed that there was asbestos in his lungs, ultimately traced to dust in the basement of his apartment building in San Francisco where he kept his bicycle. The pipes had been insulated with spray-in asbestos in the 1950's when the building was originally constructed. I'd be willing to bet that the workers who blew in that insulation preceded him.

POSSIBLY. Pyrite (FeS) is a mineral that will oxidize in the atmosphere. The bright shiny mineral faces will eventually dull and then go brown. The smell you describe is probably H2S, normally not toxic in small amounts (the smell warns us to get away - this is common around volcanoes I've worked in). My concern is that there are other sulfides that are often naturally associated closely with the pyrite, including cadmium and arsenic sulfides. These are very poisonous.

You are probably safe handling gemstones and semi-precious stones such as citrine, zircon, beryl, and amethyst - these are typically hard minerals that do not interact much with the environment nor degrade with time, which is why they are valued in the first place. 

I would encourage you to think more about a high-quality respirator when in a dusty, mineral-laden room. Inhalation is probably a more serious threat than getting the stuff on your hands... unless (like me) you always have an itchy nose and rub it frequently. Here is a website that will get you started on the various kinds of respirators out there (they run the gamut from the kind your dentist uses to serious industrial equipment): https://www.osha.gov/OshDoc/data_Hurricane_Facts/respirators.pdf 

Putting stones and gems in drinking water also boggles MY mind. A diamond will not react, and most semi-precious stones won't either... but everything else WILL react with water to some degree, especially if the water's slightly acidic (think Coke or Pepsi for acidic fluids). Putting crystals on your body is silly enough... now imagine bright yellow or red minerals in your drinking water!

I hope this helps. I personally love rock shops and as a geophysicist visit them whenever I can. I DO wash my hands after I leave one, however. 
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