Summer Health and Safety Warning: Archaeological Fieldwork and Medications

The intense sunlight and vibrant heat of summer are already upon us in Tennessee, and the Archaeology in Tennessee blog would like to discuss an important human health and safety issue that sometimes goes unmentioned in the context of warm weather archaeological fieldwork.  Everyone who does warm weather archaeological fieldwork in Tennessee and elsewhere needs to be aware of this issue and take it seriously.  A number of commonly taken prescription medications, some over-the-counter medications, and a few illegal drugs can result in injury or death if you are taking them while doing archaeological fieldwork in direct sunlight and hot weather.

With regard to direct sunlight, some of these medications can render your skin photosensitive and cause serious phototoxic and photoallergic reactions.  If you are taking prescription medications or over-the-counter medications, the best way to find out whether your medications put you at risk is to talk with your medical doctor or a licensed pharmacist at a drugstore near your home or in the area where you are doing archaeological fieldwork.  Licensed pharmacists receive intensive and extensive training on the potential side effects of the medications they dispense.  In addition, with regard to prescription medications and over-the-counter medications, look on your prescription bottles or the retail package to see if a photosensitivity, phototoxicity, or photoallergic warning sticker or statement is present.

If you decide to talk to your doctor or a pharmacist, avoid saying something generalized and terse such as:  “I’m an archaeologist,  Will this medication hurt me?”  Your doctor or pharmacist may not know what an archaeologist does and what you mean by the term “hurt me.”  Many people, even intelligent people, do not have their heads wrapped around the small world of archaeology like you do.  Instead, explain in detail that you work outside in direct sunlight and intense heat for 8 hours or more per day for at least 5 days per week, and tell them how many consecutive weeks or months you will be doing this.  If no shade is available on your archaeological sites, tell them about that too.  In addition, you can read up on this subject at the following URLs:

Click to access photosensitivity.pdf

A surprising number of common prescription medications and over-the-counter medications, when mixed with archaeological fieldwork and hot weather, can actually contribute to killing you—and warnings about it may not be present on your prescription bottle or a retail package.  These medications are known to interfere with the human body’s ability to regulate internal temperature, and some seriously inhibit the body’s ability to sweat,  If you are working hard on an archaeological site on a hot summer day, these medications can contribute significantly to an episode of heat exhaustion or a potentially fatal heat stroke.  The URL below lists major categories of prescription and over-the-counter medications that can interfere with your body’s ability to regulate its temperature or sweat enough to keep you cool on a hot day in the field.  However, with regard to individual medications, this is not a comprehensive list.  Once again, if you are taking a medication and are unsure of its potential for contributing to a hyperthermic episode while doing archaeological fieldwork, check it out with your medical doctor or a licensed pharmacist and be sure to give them enough details to understand that you work in hot ambient air for extended periods of time each day and for consecutive days, weeks, and months.

Some people take illegal drugs for recreation or because they are addicted to them.  Please be advised that you have no business working on an archaeological site while under the influence of such drugs.  The 3-dimensional contextual relationships that exist within intact cultural deposits on an archaeological site are a precious and irreplaceable resource.  Field archaeology is by its very nature a destructive process, albeit a carefully controlled one.  If your brain is high on an illegal drug, you pose a clear and present danger to that process of careful control, and you pose a safety risk to yourself and your fellow field archaeologists.  In addition, some illegal drugs and often abused legal drugs can get you into the same medical concerns discussed above.  For example, if you are an alcoholic or you have a significant drinking problem, consuming beverage alcohol in large quantities dehydrates the body and can get you into trouble with hyperthermia in the field.  Recent research indicates that the illegal drug ecstasy interferes with the body’s ability to regulate its internal temperature.  Cocaine does the same thing.  Therefore, if you are a drug head of any kind, the Archaeology in Tennessee blog urges you to stay away from archaeological sites for your own safety and the safety of others, including the safety of the archaeological record itself.

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