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Repatriation Office
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Detail of Ho Chunk Bag (NMNH catalog no. E357877b)
Pesticides Detection Initiative

The Repatriation Office of the National Museum of Natural History has initiated efforts to detect pesticides and other contaminant substances that may be hazardous to people handling National Museum of Natural History collections. A portable Bruker X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) analyzer is used to detect potentially hazardous substances that might be present on the collections. XRF analysis is a non-destructive, non-invasive, technology that uses x-rays to identify certain elements on the surfaces of objects. The Repatriation Office, working with the Anthropology Conservation Laboratory, is undertaking a program to systematically test objects claimed for repatriation in an effort to determine if pesticides are present.

Hide pouch display item

Hide pouch from the Yukon River area of Alaska showing the item was treated with pesticides. Photo by Betsy Bruemmer, Smithsonian Institution

Although this method has the ability to detect the presence of certain metals used in pesticides, like arsenic or mercury, XRF analysis cannot detect many commonly used organic pesticides. Unfortunately, most organic pesticides can only be detected by destructive sampling. Even though such sampling usually removes or damages only minute portions of the object, as a matter of policy, the Repatriation Office will not undertake destructive testing for pesticides unless requested by the culturally affiliated tribe.

Poison Tag

Poison tag showing the cultural object was treated with pesticides in 1884. Photo by Betsy Bruemmer, Smithsonian Institution

XRF analysis provides an additional non-destructive and rapid means of determining if objects pose hazards for their handlers. If pesticides or other contaminants are detected on items requested for repatriation, those results will be shared with the culturally affiliated tribe. The tribe can then work together with the museum to consider ways of handling contaminated objects as safely as possible. For instance, it might be important for objects to be touched only while wearing gloves. For items that must be worn in ceremonies, it may be possible to create a liner to protect the wearer's skin from direct contact with potentially harmful substances.

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