Are Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde artworks poisonous?

Last week a study in the journal Analytical Methods released research that suggests that some of Damien Hirst’s most famous works of art have been leaking noxious fumes.

Scientists monitoring levels of formaldehyde, which is classified as a carcinogen in the US and EU, at Hirst’s Tate Modern retrospective in 2012 recorded readings that were in excess of European regulations. The works monitored included Mother And Child Divided (1993), in which calf and cow carcasses are suspended in formaldehyde in tanks, and Away From The Flock (1994).

“One of Hirst’s main subjects is the setting-up of giant fish tanks filled by thousands of liters of FA, in which intact biological specimens are immersed, such as zebras, cows, calves, even sharks,” the report states. “It has been found that the tanks are surrounded by formaldehyde fumes, constantly exuded in the atmosphere (likely via the sealant), reaching levels of 5 ppm (parts per million), one order of magnitude higher than the 0.5ppm limit set up by legislation.”

Pier Giorgio Righetti, an author of the paper, said that his concern was not for the visitors, as “the exposure time was too short,” but its potential effect on staff. “What happened to the staff who were exposed to the fumes for five months [the exhibition run] is something the Tate should be concerned about,” Righetti said.

Damien Hirst’s company, Science Ltd., responded to the press furore with this statement: “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.”

A Tate spokesman added: “Tate always puts the safety of its staff and visitors first, and we take all the necessary precautions when installing and displaying our exhibitions. These works contained a very dilute formaldehyde solution that was contained within sealed tanks.”

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