Friday, August 24, 2012

Plaster Pants, Gluey Hands, and Safety

Tally-Ho from the field!

First, a brief update on the excavation. We have completely jacketed and trenched the main body of the hadrosaur. It is now resting comfortably (and securely) on wooden blocks, with not one gram of original matrix supporting its weight. There is nothing more disconcerting than squirming yourself underneath 4000lbs of 73 million year old hadrosaur to apply plaster bandages while the block is supported by three teeny pillars of fractured siltstone and wooden struts. While underneath I just kept telling myself that being crushed to death by a dinosaur was a good way to die. The second worst event that happened was the destruction of my oldest pair of field pants. These pants owed me nothing. I bought them in 2005 and have been abusing them ever since. RIP Field Pants...may your memory last longer than the seams in your seat-area.

Field Pants 2005-2012. Your myriad of stains are your badges of honor.
The worst thing that happened was that a blob of plaster fell on my eye, but that was quickly remedied by emptying my CamelPak onto my face. I was wearing my glasses, but I was not wearing safety glasses. This incident was completely avoidable.

This plaster-in-the-eye incident started me thinking about some of the chemicals and materials so often used in the field of paleontology - this is not the first time I have given thought to this, mind you, but for the first time since I started this blog. Do we take the time to thoroughly research these chemicals/materials before we put ourselves in the situation of upending an entire bottle of acetone-vinyl mix (or VinAc, as we call it) on our legs, or glue a bottle of super-glue to our right hand, and then proceed to glue said hand to the workbench? Do we stress enough to our students/employees the potential hazards of long-term exposure to some of these chemicals? And, even if we do these things, do we consistently practice what we preach and wear ALL the proper safety equipment ALL the time?

You can guess from the plaster-eye incident that no, I do not always take the proper safety precautions I should. I can say that 90% of the time I do, but it's that 10% that will come back to haunt you. I know better. I'm a seemingly intelligent individual. I am also a horrid klutz...if there is a way that I can hurt myself (or those around me), I'll find it and proceed with unabashed zeal until there is nothing left around me but chaos. I really should not be let out into the field without a protective layer of Nerf. I am getting better - like any good habit, you have to train yourself, and make a conscious effort to practice proper safety procedures.

I digress. One of the chemicals with which I have routine contact is acetone. It is the solvent with which we mix our adhesive. First, does your lab/workplace have the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for all the chemicals in the lab? Here is what the MSDS sheet says regarding the toxicology of acetone. I chose acetone only because it is a chemical with which I am the most familiar. I am not picking on it unfairly - I am sure there are other chemicals that have similar or far worse effects.

Routes of Entry: Absorbed through skin. Dermal contact. Eye contact. Inhalation.

OK, not good, especially if you do not use gloves or work in a poorly ventilated environment. I should wear gloves every time I apply VinAc. This is a step that I have made a conscious effort to remedy. As VinAc is one of the consolidants that I use in collections, my accessioning kit contains a box of nitril gloves.

Chronic Effects on Human:

CARCINOGENIC EFFECTS: A4 (Not classifiable for human or animal.) by ACGIH. DEVELOPMENTAL TOXICITY: Classified Reproductive system/toxin/female, Reproductive system/toxin/male [SUSPECTED]. Causes damage to the following organs: central nervous system (CNS). May cause damage to the following organs: kidneys, the reproductive system, liver, skin.

A cheery read, eh? Since I am equipt with girl parts this is a bit troubling, considering the early years of my training when I didn't use gloves consistently while mixing acetone-based consolidants. Are these effects cumulative? While it is (even to me) a definite no-brainer that using any solvent while pregnant is dangerous, what about women who are in their child-bearing years but do not (but one day plan to) have children? What sort of wear and tear have my ova accumulated? Would I give birth to something akin to the bear in Prophecy?

All I can do at this point is to continue increasing the attention I pay to my personal safety, and continue to stress to my employees and volunteers that come into contact with the chemicals we use to prepare and preserve fossils.

On the plus side, I promised myself I would limit my exposure to the sun. I can successfully report that, despite almost 60 consecutive days in the field, I am almost as pale now as I was at the beginning of the field season. I received a touch of sunburn on my neck, but  other than that I remained vigilant with the sunscreen and spent most of the summer in long sleeved shirts, long pants, and a fairly goofy looking wide-brimmed hat.

Until next time, stay safe, don't glue yourself to the prep table, and for the love of all that is green and growing keep your coffee mug away from your solvents!



Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Brief Field Update!

Hello from the field! To be accurate, I am not posting directly from the field site as we do not have internet access. I have mixed feelings about that. The downside is that we tend to miss out on current events, such as all the Olympic coverage. The benefit is that most people we deal with know about our annual summer absence and tend to keep the last minute "I need X by tomorrow...I've known about this for a month but am just letting you know now" demands (e.g. museum statistics, financials, forms to sign, etc.) to a minimum.

I digress. I want to post an update on what we've been up to since the first week of July. We resumed the BC hadrosaur excavation on July 5th. Here's a bit of background. Since 2004 we have been prospecting the approximately 73 million year old outcrops of northeast British Columbia for dinosaur material. We knew from the finds near the Grande Prairie area that British Columbia had the potential to produce ceratopsians, hadrosaurs, tyrannosaurs, ankylosaurs, and other animals similar to the charismatic creatures discovered in the Upper Cretaceous deposits of Alberta. The first report of bone material was made by a family from the region. Unfortunately the few remains were encased in very coarse grained sandstone in a gravel pit. Why was this unfortunate? First, when paleontologists and geologists talk about grains, they are referring to the size of the particles that make up the rock in which the dinosaur bones are encased. Most of the rock layers in this region are deposited by water (lakes, streams, rivers, deltas, etc.) So, the larger the individual grains (or, the coarser the grains), the faster the water had to be to move them and deposit them. Most of the bones we find in coarse grained rock tend to be individual pieces rather than complete skeletons, and those pieces tend to be broken. The report was enough to tell us that all we needed to do was look (and look, and look, and look some more) and eventually we would encounter a site that contained a large amount of bone.

In 2007 Rich, our colleague Dr. Federico Fanti and I came across a hillside that contained a great deal of eroded bone that stretched over 10 meters. The bone was of a hadrosaur, but what kind of hadrosaur remained to be seen. This was enough for us to return to the site in 2008 and conduct a test pit. We discovered we had at least part of a disarticulated skeleton. In 2009 we discovered that a large portion of the skeleton was mostly articulated. In 2010 we discovered the pesky skeleton was missing the neck and head, and that the pectoral limbs had been pulled off prior to burial. This was also the year we found  several tyrannosaur teeth associated with the skeleton. We uncovered a large portion of the pelvic girdle, and the shape of the bones indicates that we are dealing with a crested hadrosaur. In 2011 we had planned to remove the skeleton, but the Great Weather Gods had plans of their own and rained for four weeks out of our five week field season.

This brings us to 2012. We have had a successful excavating season to date. The process of removing the skeleton is well underway. The protective plaster jacket that encases the exposed parts of the body has been expanded and reinforced. We have also started digging under the jacket and applying plaster to the underside of the skeleton. This will ensure that, when we move the jacket out of the wilderness and into the museum, the insides of the jacket won't fall out when we eventually flip the whole jacket over during the process of separating it from the hillside. We are about a week away from being ready to flip the jacket. On that day I am sure I will be so nervous I'll add to the already numerous stark-raving-white hairs on my head. Maybe this is the year I finally get a pure white streak in my hair.

We've also successfully removed the tibia, a mostly complete rib, and several smaller pieces of partial ribs. We haven't found many new skeletal elements this summer because are concentrating on removing the main part of the skeleton. However, while I was digging around the rib, I uncovered a new limb bone (likely a humerus) with a new rib laying across it. Once I sort through the many images I've taken, I'll post some pictures.

That is all the news I have for now. The next time I'm in town will likely be when the skeleton is removed.

Off to wash field laundry....