School fan plan for art students’ fume room

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Wakatipu High students having “light-headed” experiences in fume-ridden art classes will soon be brought back down to earth. 

The school is rushing to splash out on large extractor fans for the room so students no longer suffer the mind-bending effects of potent solvents sniffed accidentally during class. 

Students approached by Mountain Scene tell how sometimes it’s been bad enough to make kids ask to leave lessons because of the strong pong from toxic chemicals like turps, methylated spirits and polyurethane. 

Year 12’s Ariana Horsley says some kids get headaches when solvents are used but “you get used to it”.
“You get a bit light-headed,” she adds. 

Papers from a school Board of Trustees meeting last December reveal the teacher in charge of art Leslie Koehn as saying ventilation is a “big issue” in the class. 

“The art room in Robertson Block has very little ventilation and students often use thinners and solvents for transferring images,” the report says. 

“Students have been working on the balcony at times but this is not suitable.” 

Principal Lyn Cooper insists the school’s never had complaints from students working in the large “poorly-designed” room with only small opening windows positioned up high. But she says the school is now shopping for extractor fans. 

“We’ve had to do modifications to ensure health and safety,” Cooper says. 

A budget for the fans hasn’t been set but the school will call for tenders soon. 

“If we get fans we don’t have to have [the kids] outside.” 

Student Ariana Horsley, who doesn’t take art this year, confirms some lessons have had to be moved outdoors. 

“You just sit in class and say, ‘Oh, Miss’. You have to ask if you can go outside to do it.” 

Her friend Jordan Howell adds: “Quite a few kids can’t stand it and have to leave.” 

But both girls say they’ve never thought it’s a health and safety issue. 

Friend Holly Bain plays down any concern: “It’s nothing major.” 

Art teacher Koehn tells Mountain Scene she referred to ventilation as a “big issue” at last year’s BoT meeting because it was part of a “wish list” for the department. 

“It would be a total blowing up of something if that was to be made an issue. 

“Once or twice in the year – and it’s my choice whether I want to use it – we use thinners-based products and the students decide that they want to go for that technique. It can be very smelly but we go out onto the deck and try to avoid the fumes inside. 

“It’s a very minor issue and if anyone suffers, it’s me,” she says. 

Koehn says she won’t be using thinners again “until we get the fans installed”. 

“It would be such a horrible thing if parents read this and thought their children were in danger in the art room.” 

Dunedin-based National Poisons Centre director Dr Wayne Temple says short-term exposure to solvents can lead to headaches, nausea, drowsiness, skin problems and affect coordination. 

“It [can be] particularly bad in winter if all the windows are closed and there’s not much ventilation and it’s fairly hot – that can obviously exacerbate the situation so that’s not a good scene as well.” 

Without knowing exposure levels, Temple can’t say what sort of effect there may be on students but “obviously having a good change of ventilation and fresh air is a good thing to do”.