Are the Tate’s sunflower seeds a risk to health?

sunflower seeds 1

Last week I took a short break in London. On Monday we visited the Tate Modern to see the Gauguin exhibition that had recently opened. On arriving at the gallery we noticed that there was something going on in the Turbine hall. We could see that the floor in a large area of the hall was covered with what appeared to be gravel. There were a few people standing and walking on it with some of them taking photos. However, we weren’t allowed access – the area was cordoned off. There were also a number of people on the mezzanine floor wandering around with folders under their arms. I asked one of the gallery attendants what was going on and was told that the “gravel” was a newly installed work by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, consisting of 100 million individually handmade ceramic sunflower seeds. According to the Tate press release

Each ceramic seed was moulded, fired at 1300°C, hand-painted and then fired again at 800°C.”

For the first couple of days visitors were allowed to interact with the work – walking  and standing on the “seeds” (we hadn’t been allowed access as it was the press showing when we visited). However, on Friday the gallery announced that  this would no longer be allowed as they had

…  been advised that the interaction of visitors with the sculpture can cause dust which could be damaging to health following repeated inhalation over a long period of time. In consequence, Tate, in consultation with the artist, has decided not to allow members of the public to walk across the sculpture. “

No details have been provided on the risk assessment that led to this decision, but it appears that the seeds can be crushed underfoot generating dust that could become airborne and then inhaled. What could this dust consist of?

Although no exact details are available on the composition of the seeds, porcelain is made from a number of materials that contain crystalline silica. Respirable particles of this common mineral can cause “silicosis” – a serious, debilitating lung disease, where scar tissue is deposited in the lungs reducing their ability to transfer oxygen into the blood and leading to other complications such as emphysema. For the condition to develop exposure has to occur over a long period of time. A single, brief exposure won’t lead to any harmful effects.

A quick search of the literature throws up quite a lot of information on the risk of silicosis during porcelain manufacture, when workers would be exposed to the raw materials, but there does not appear to be much on the hazards presented by inhalation of dust from fired porcelain. Some free crystalline silica is likely to be present, but only as one constituent, and it’s unlikely that all of this will be respirable.

So some of the dust generated by people walking over the seeds may be hazardous, but what really matters is the risk to health. This is determined not only by the hazard, but also the  exposure to the dust, which depends on the concentration and the duration and frequency of exposure.

Risk = hazard x level of exposure x duration x frequency

Even if all the dust did consist of respirable crystalline silica,  I think that it is unlikely that the risk to visitors would be significant. Its difficult to estimate what the dust concentration would be, but as the Tate themselves state, the dust “could be damaging to health following repeated inhalation over a long period of time”. Most visitors from outside London are probably only likely to visit the exhibition once and would perhaps spend a couple of hours in the Turbine Hall. Even if the concentration of crystalline silica was above the Workplace Exposure Limit (which is probably unlikely) their exposure would not constitute “repeated inhalation over a long period of time”.

Perhaps the concerns are for the health of the staff who work in the gallery (although that is not what the Tate are saying). They clearly would have a longer and more frequent exposure to the dust. The risk then, would depend on the concentration of the dust in the Turbine Hall. I don’t know whether the Tate have properly assessed this, but it would be relatively easy to monitor the dust levels to allow an informed judgement to be made of the risk.

It is possible that there are other components of concern in the dust. The seeds are all painted and paint pigments can contain toxic materials. I would have hoped that the artist would have avoided using such paints due to the potential risks to the artisans who created the seeds for him. However, even if the pigments did include toxic components the same considerations would probably apply as for the respirable crystalline silica – i.e. the risk would be from repeated exposure to a significant concentration over a long period of time and, as with the silica, it is unlikely that this would be the case, certainly for visitors.

It seems likely that the Tate have overreacted somewhat. I think the health risk to visitors due to exposure to any dust will be negligible. So this could be a case of “health and safety gone mad” or perhaps the Tate have other reasons for forbidding visitors from walking on the work.

Photo credit : arkadin55

Further information on silica hazards and control of risks are available from


UK Health and Safety Executive


Published by ms6282

I'm a consultant and trainer specialising in the recognition, evaluation and control of health hazards in the workplace. I'm based in the North West of England, but am willing to travel (almost) anywhere

3 thoughts on “Are the Tate’s sunflower seeds a risk to health?

  1. I do not believe it was an overreaction on the Tate’s part. I am wondering how many complaints they had. I had to attend a dinner in the turbine hall for work – like an opening ceremony. Everyone was walking through the seeds and playing with them. I felt pretty ill later that night. Had difficulty breathing and felt pretty dreadful for the next few days – but that night in particular. At first I put it down to the inflatable mattress I was sleeping on that night at a friend’s house, but could not work out why it had not affected me like that before. I then just thought her flat must be really dusty. She later told me that they had roped the sunflower seeds off and it all made sense then. My lungs felt really irritated, my eyes puffed up and I felt like I was having a massive allergic reaction to something.

    1. Hi Vanessa
      It’s interesting to read your first hand account – I’ve not read any reports from anyone who was there so my view was formed based only on what I read in the press. If other people reacted as you did then you’re right – it would not have been an overreaction by the Tate. The press reports I saw didn’t mention these sorts of problems, though so my post was based on them and my reading of the potential composition of the seeds. I did hear one account that the concern was actually lead in the paint. If that is true then that wouldn’t account for your symptoms – but perhaps there were other things in them that would. Or it may have been that you were allergic to one of the components of the dust and other people wouldn’t have necessarily suffered your symptoms. Without information from other visitors (before access was forbidden) it’s difficult to know.

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