Danger in the Arts

By Brian J. Sullivan

What does a photographer, a print maker, a jeweler, a sculptor, and a fiber artist all have in common? If you quietly thought to yourself that they are all starving artists, congratulations, you were partially right. Actually, each of them, including artists in all mediums, is exposed to highly toxic chemicals on a routine basis as part of the art making process. And like most, artists take very little precautions to mitigate their exposure. In fact, there are very few "safe" artists' materials. Each artistic discipline has its own unique dangers and inherent risks.

Most of us know about being careful around dangers which we can readily see and identify like power equipment, but are far more lax about other dangers equally as dangerous to our health and safety of ourselves and loved ones. Many of these dangers are more insidious because they do not show any symptoms with short term use, but over time, their short term exposure is cumulative and extremely toxic. Usually when an artist feels that something is not "right," irreparable damage has already been done and it is usually too late for any sort of curative treatment. Equally scary is the fact that many artists don't have adequate heath care and therefore miss the opportunity of early detection through routine check-ups.

Since much of the damage that comes from using artist's materials and different techniques are not immediately apparent, most artists erroneously believe such materials to be safe when in fact just the opposite is true. Most of these toxins build up over many years of exposure to eventually affect vital organs within the body.

As a general rule artists are exposed to dangerous chemicals through three different sources:

  1. Dermal
  2. Inhalation
  3. Ingestion

Dermal means exposure through the skin (one of the largest and most important organ we have). It is our first line of defense against hostile organisms trying to enter our body. However, being somewhat porous, it also allows chemicals to be absorbed through it, where they can easily enter our blood stream and be carried throughout the body.

While direct contact with some solvents such as mineral spirits may not affect the skin directly (and therefore lead one to believe it is safe), its repeated use and absorption can build up in and affect one's kidneys, liver, brain, and many other areas of one's body. In addition, many artists also build up a sensitively to repeated exposure to certain chemicals which do affect their skin in the form of allergic reactions, rashes, or open sores.

Inhalation is the most common way toxic chemicals enter the artist's body, usually in the form of fumes and fine dust, which are absorbed through the lungs and into the blood stream, again traveling and affecting many parts of the body. The reality is that all of these chemicals affect each person differently depending on one's age, size, ethnicity, physical health, and the amounts of exposure, not only to one chemical but also with combinations of many chemicals. And just because you can't "smell" it does not mean that it is any less dangerous. A big misconception among artists is that "no/low odor" mineral spirits is some how safer than "regular" mineral spirits—an erroneous belief also held by most painting classes in schools throughout the United States!

Ingestion occurs when small particles of toxins enter the body through the mouth in various ways, such as by biting one's fingernails, smoking, eating, or shaping one's paint brush to a fine point with moistened lips and tongue. Exposure also occurs through accidental ingestion of chemicals stored in common household product containers such as orange juice or soft drink containers, and then an unknowing person (usually a child or pet) drinks from the container with serious consequences. Ingestion can also come from having previously used the food containers to store art materials/chemicals in, then using them to store food, thinking that  a thorough washing has removed all traces of toxicity. However, many plastic containers absorb dangerous amounts of chemicals which can not be "washed" out, and with time will gradually leach out into one's food.

What can be done to lessen one's exposure? Becoming aware of the dangers inherent in your particular medium will go a long way in helping to reduce one's exposure. For instance, a Google search of "artists hazards" will yield literally thousands of sites listing the health hazards of different materials. One California site listed 23 pages of specific art materials, which, because of their health hazards, could not be used in the classroom of kindergarten through sixth grade. Such items listed were Elmer's carpenter's wood filler, Bob Ross oil painting medium, and cooked linseed oil. Another source of good information is the manufacturer's Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) which can be requested from the manufacturer on any product you may be concerned about. The MSDS will contain specific information about its known health risks along with its use, storage, handling, and proper disposal.

One of the best ways to lessen your and your family's exposure to harmful chemicals is to keep the studio and living space separate.

For Dermal Protection:
To help protect against absorbing chemicals through one's skin, wear nitrile or neoprene gloves that are designed for such use (many gloves like rubber or latex actually break down with contact with solvents). Also some liquid glove hand creams can protect against light exposure to less strong chemicals.

For Inhalation Protection:
Wear a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) approved dust mask for dust protection of large particles which are generated from sanding or grinding. Please be aware that "dust" masks do not protect against fumes, vapors, or gases. If you are working with chemicals that create fumes, an adequate NIOSH rated chemical mask with replaceable cartridges, designed for the specific chemicals you are using, is a must (read their label because most are only good for eight hours of cumulative use and have a limited shelf life!). Also learn how to wear the mask properly and be fitted for the correct size. Men with beards and mustaches can not safely wear a chemical mask. Adding a vent hood over an acid bath and exhausting it to the outside is another extremely smart precaution to take to limit one's exposure to toxic chemicals. However, just using a fan is not adequate, since it spreads the fumes throughout the room but does not get rid of them, nor does it introduce fresh make-up air.

For Digestion Protection:
Don't eat, smoke, or drink in your studio. Wash your hands thoroughly before putting them up to your mouth. Wear a smock or coveralls, or change clothes when moving from the studio area to your living area.

And finally don't forget about eye and hearing protection in situations which call for them. Also tie back long hair and loose clothing when working around machinery which may catch loose hair and pull one into the machine. Keep all flammable materials and solvents in their original containers and in a fire proof cabinet. Dispose of solvent soaked rags in special approved waste baskets with self-sealing lids to prevent spontaneous fires.

And remember, many materials we used to use and were considered safe at one time are now almost completely banned from the studio. Remember asbestos and lead? Sadly I remember all too well having food served at artists' receptions in the metals studio on asbestos table tops! Or taking a nap in the acid etching room with no ventilation! Who would have known? This was a major University, and until recently this practice was still being done. So likewise, take some precautions now with the materials you use to create your art work, for you never know what they will say about them after you have been using them for twenty years.

Stay safe. Be creative. And live a long and prosperous life.