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Stage Fog Blamed for Vocal Problems

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Those clouds of manmade fog that dazzle audiences

nightly at operas, concerts and Broadway shows around the country may be doing

more than creating atmosphere.

Opera chorus singer Pamela Dale says the fog is making her cough. Even worse,

she says, it is keeping her from reaching high notes during performances.

"I'm just trying to keep my job," Dale says. "But how can you sing when you're

coughing?"

Dale, who sings with the San Francisco Opera, is one of many performers from New

York to Seattle who have filed workers' compensation claims complaining of

respiratory problems, throat irritation and other ailments that they blame on theatrical

fog.

The type of fog that has given Dale the most problems, she says, is made from a

chemical called glycol. It has been found to be safe in a number of studies and is

used without problems in many performances.

But over the past 18 months, the 52-year-old singer has filed more than 50

complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, resulting in nine

citations.

OSHA found that the San Francisco Opera needed to provide more training and

education about the fog, something that has been completed, according to opera

spokeswoman Elizabeth Connell Nielson.

"We are continually looking for whatever is the safest and most effective means of

getting the kind of production results we want and need," she says. "We take very

seriously any problem or complaint any artist might have."

The San Francisco Opera says it dropped glycol fog more than a year ago because

of Dale's complaints and because stage designers want different effects. They have

instead used mineral oil, liquid nitrogen or dry ice, or combinations of those.

Dry ice has been found to be safer, according to Michael McCann, who did a report

on fog for the Center for Safety in the Arts.

But Dale says the mineral oil fog also irritates her throat.

The San Francisco Opera has permitted Dale and at least two other singers to skip

any performances in which fog is used, including the current production of Mozart's

"The Magic Flute." As a result, Dale is putting in about half her usual performances.

"Our industrial hygienist has met with the chorus and said if you feel that you might

have some sort of reaction to this, you're not going to lose your job, you're not going

to lose your pay," says Russ Walton, the opera's director of human resources.

Alexandra Nehra, another San Francisco Opera singer who has filed a workers'

compensation claim, says her problems started during a performance of Verdi's

"Nabucco" during a scene that used fog and propane torches. "I was coughing up

black stuff," Nehra says.

Glycol fog machine manufacturer Rosco International of Stamford, Conn., maintains

the fog is safe when used properly, meaning not "overfogging" and using only fluid

recommended by the manufacturer.

"We have been advised over the years that this is an extremely safe material to be

around," says Eric Tishman, senior product manager. Even so, Tishman says the

minimum amount of fog needed to achieve an effect should be used, or it could

cause dryness in the throat and nose.

Others maintain that the fog cannot do any permanent damage.

"When somebody sees a smoke or fog like this, it's a psychological problem," says

Jim Kehrer, head of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Texas. "If you

see some sort of fog or smoke rolling at you, and you already have a breathing

problem, it's going to get worse."

A 1995 study commissioned by Actors' Equity Association and conducted by

Consultech Engineering, a consulting company, found that fog-exposed performers

were much more likely to report respiratory problems.

Another study, conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and

Health in 1994, found no evidence that the fog causes asthma as long as it is used

correctly.

But because the fog can be irritating or drying, the institute said, exposure to the fog

should be minimized, the fluids should be heated to the lowest temperature

necessary and the proper fluids should be used.

Singers are not the only ones to complain. In 1995, nearly a third of the 25 members

of the pit orchestra in the Broadway production of "Beauty and the Beast"

complained of asthma-like effects, according to Bill Moriarity, president of American

Federation of Musicians Local 802. One lawsuit was filed, and it is pending.

Some audience members have also claimed to have suffered reactions. The San

Francisco Opera posts notices to audiences when fogs or other special effects are

used, though it is not required by law to do so.

Dale says that opera houses should be more creative with lighting and rely more on

the audience's imagination instead of fog.

But "they'll stop using it when someone like Luciano Pavarotti gets a reaction to

stage fog," says lawyer Steven Weiss, whose client Will Roy, an opera singer,

received an undisclosed settlement from the Cleveland Opera after claiming he

suffered an allergic reaction in 1990.

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