In the early 1990s artist Damien Hirst became famous for a series of works featuring dead animals swimming in tanks of formaldehyde. Now a group of chemists claim they have found troubling levels of formaldehyde gas—a known carcinogen—around these publicly displayed artworks.
In the study published in the journal Analytical Methods, researchers took measurements using a remote sensor designed to detect formaldehyde at two museums where Hirst’s works were recently on display: the Tate Modern in London and the Summer Palace in Beijing. At the Tate, the scientists tested the air around the tanks containing Hirst’s “Away from the Flock” (a lamb) and “Mother and Child (Divided)” (a cow and a calf sliced in half), and found readings that were much higher than they should be, “reaching levels of 5 ppm (parts per million), one order of magnitude higher than the 0.5ppm limit set up by legislation.”
While your first association with formaldehyde is probably from the jars of animal specimens you encountered in 7th-grade biology class, it’s important to note that formaldehyde is all around us. Furniture and other construction materials are made with the chemical. But sometimes formaldehyde gas can be released from these objects—known as “off-gassing”—which can cause nosebleeds and coughing, and, in the long-term, nose and mouth cancer. In this case, the formaldehyde fumes were likely escaping the tanks via the sealant, which had to be reapplied over the years to prevent the liquid from leaking.
A spokesperson from the Tate said the solution was too diluted to pose any risk to the public, and earlier today, Hirst refuted the study’s findings in a statement on his website:
“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 such complaints were made to us during the show —or at any other shows or sites featuring the formaldehyde works. We don’t believe any risk was posed to the public.”
But it’s not the public that the scientists are worried about. Study author Pier Giorgio Righetti told the New York Times that he believed visitors were not exposed to the formaldehyde gas for long enough period to suffer any adverse effects, but he could not say the same for museum staff, who are often in close quarters with these works in poorly ventilated conditions.
What makes this entire thing so ironic is that this is an artist who is known for his fascination with health, as evidenced from his Pharmacy series— which can now be experienced in a new pill-themed restaurant in London—to the name of his company (“Science Ltd.”). So maybe the gas leak is all part of the art?
Update: A gallery assistant from the Tate has come forward, claiming that she was sick while installing the 2012 exhibition. “I’m quite alarmed,” she 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.”