Excerpts from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials, by Steven Saitzyk © 1987
You would be outraged if someone brought into your home industrial solvents, chemicals containing high concentrations of heavy metals, and coal-tar derivatives-in other words, materials known to cause nerve damage, emotional disorders, and cancer. Yet, as an artist, you commonly bring such materials into your living and working environment, and then proceed to bathe your hands in them, breath their dusts or vapors, or ingest them, allowing these toxic materials to contaminate your body and your environment.
Unfortunately, there is a long history of artists poisoning themselves. Over the years it has become so commonplace for artists to damage their health with their materials that the stereotype of an artist’s personality consists of chronic depression, irritability, aberrant behavior, frequent colds or flulike symptoms, low back pain, and headaches. These characteristics are the symptoms of low-level poisoning, as well as of psychological stress. However, most art dealers, historians, and collectors tend to attribute these aberrations to creative genius. Van Gogh is a prime example of the way poisoning may have affected not only the artist’s health but the appearance of his artwork as well. One of the symptoms of lead poisoning, from which he was certainly suffering, is the swelling of the retina of the eye, which is said to give the illusion that objects have halos around them.
The toxic nature of materials is certainly better understood today (although it was not unknown in Van Gogh’s time), primarily among chemists, medical doctors, a few government agencies, and those who have been injured. Unfortunately, this understanding has not been effectively communicated to artists or to art institutions. The first such article on this subject was not even published until 1963, when it appeared in Art News.
Artists are using many more hazardous materials in more unusual ways than ever before. Just a few examples are the use of plastic resins in cast resin sculpture; such solvents as hexane, benzene, and toluene in graphic arts materials; metal fumes from welding; and heavy metals and carcinogens, which are inhaled during airbrushing of watercolors, acrylics, and oil paints. In 1981, The National Cancer Institute studied the deaths of 1,598 artists and found that among many other chronic illnesses, they have two to three times above the average rate for cancer.
Naivete and poor product labeling combine to cause this situation. When it comes to hazards, most artists have either adopted a fatalistic attitude or believe that the manufacturer or some benevolent organization is protecting them from hazardous materials. The truth is that, in practical terms, there are no institutions actively protecting you. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), for example, regulates toxic chemicals only in the workplace, while the Consumer Products Safety Commission deals only with the labeling of products that cause acute illnesses such as poisoning. Artists’ concerns center on chronic toxicity and are, therefore, in a no-man’s land as far as federal protection is concerned.
The only local regulation enacted at the time of this writing is the amendment to the California Hazardous Substance Act, Assembly Bill No. 3438, which came into effect, after several delays, in February 1986. It is supposed to provide for the seizure and banning of all improperly labeled art and craft materials that contain hazardous substances. This act is a trial balloon for other states where legislation is pending. Six months after this amendment had gone into effect, it had yet to be enforced. Although there is no direct funding for its enforcement, no agreement as to what constitutes proper labeling of specific hazardous materials, or even exactly what is hazardous, the major manufacturers of artists’ materials are scrambling to comply. The predictions for the effects of this law range from the creation of black markets, to the total absence of professional materials from California until a standard is agreed upon, to no enforcement at all.
What is happening now and what is likely to continue to happen is that the available variety of materials is shrinking. Certain traditional materials that may be questionable and for which there is no adequate replacement are simply no longer being offered by manufacturers. Additionally, smaller manufacturers, particularly foreign competitors, are bowing out of the California marketplace. Although legislation such as this has proven successful in other areas of our society, there is an inherent problem in attempting to adapt it to a profession whose major driving force is creativity. All labeling and regulation is based on intended use. If artists used everything as it was intended to be used, I wonder if there would be any new art. Airbrushing, for example, which is one of the fastest-growing methods for applying artists’ paints, violates the intended use of most artists’ paints. State legislation such as this also works best when the consumer supports it. Most creative people would not fancy restrictions on their freedom of expression by the banning of certain irreplaceable, as well as traditional, pigments and colors, and would look outside the state for mail-order suppliers.
Although I support proper labeling and I have lectured for years on the hazards involved with artists’ materials, I feel that the professional artist should not rely on either legislation or improved labeling. An example of how unreliable labeling has become under new regulations involves one company, which, when confronted with the possibility of strict requirements, produced an ideal label. It had a large black X on an orange field with the word “harmful” in seven languages. It listed the major hazardous ingredients and stated, in three languages, “Harmful by inhalation, in contact with skin and if swallowed. Danger of cumulative effects. Keep out of reach of children. Contains barium. Should not be used on surfaces liable to be chewed or sucked by children.” However, after the enactment of regulations the new labels for the same product have none of this information, and, in fact, state that no United States health label is required.
Your only real defense is through self-education about methods of personal protection and a fundamental change in attitude to one that treats all materials as hazardous or potentially hazardous. The primary purpose of this chapter is to help you do these two things. I will discuss how we contaminate ourselves and our immediate environments, and will provide practical remedies for these problems. Since it would be impossible to describe all the hazardous materials and situations encountered, I will emphasize an approach that will immediately reduce the overall level of hazard for the artist who paints and draws. Additional information can be obtained in Artist Beware, a book by Michael McCann, Ph.D., or by contacting the Center for Occupational Hazards (COH), 5 Beekman Street, New York, NY 10038, (212) 227-6220, which is a national clearinghouse for research and education regarding hazards in the arts.
Attempts to solve the problem by substituting nonhazardous materials for hazardous materials have rarely been successful because, even when a possible substitute can be found, its quality and characteristics are often unacceptable to the professional artist. At times it almost seems to be a law of nature that the better the artists’ material, the more hazardous it is. The art materials manufacturing trade’s attempts to deal with hazards has centered almost entirely on labeling, and if you have made a recent purchase you may have noticed that there is rarely any notification on the product as to its hazardous, or nonhazardous, nature. When such notification is found, it is often unclear and in some cases even misleading to the average consumer. When you consider that 80 to 90 percent of artists’ materials are in some way hazardous, as well as the incredible diversity of these materials and the types of possible exposure, it would appear to be an insurmountable task for any organization to create a set of guidelines to which all the different manufacturers throughout the world would agree to conform, and then be able to place such information on or with such materials as sticks of pastels and half-pans of watercolor.
Recently, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) has recommended a set of voluntary guidelines for the labeling of hazardous substances in artists’ materials. These recommendations are set down in ASTM D 4236, Standard Practice for Art Materials for Chronic Health Hazards. A copy of this fivepage document is available for a small fee from ASTM Sales Services Dept., 1916 Race St., Philadelphia, PA 19103. The document itself does not provide any information on what substances are hazardous, or how hazardous material should or should not be used. The ASTM does no testing of products and relies primarily on manufacturers for information and testing. The work accomplished by this society is tempered by the fact that these guidelines are voluntary and not mandatory. Because these guidelines are to be incorporated into legislation in some states, it is thought that most manufacturers will eventually comply. Many products are now being labeled with only the minimum information required by ASTM D 4236 so that they may be allowed to state that the product “Conforms to ASTM D 4236.” From my experience it is not clear what such labeling as “Conforms to ASTM D 4236” conveys to the average consumer, particularly when clarification can only be found by sending money to a relatively unknown society with an address that is not readily available.
The Art and Craft Materials Institute Inc., 715 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02116, has expanded its role and set itself up to review products to see if they indeed conform to ASTM D 4236. If a product does conform, the label may say so using either the abbreviation CL for Certified Labeling or a longer version “Health Labeling Conforms to ASTM D 4236 Certified by Art & Craft Institute, Boston 02116.” Their certification process primarily involves the submission by a manufacturer of a formula for a product for review by the institute’s toxicologist; actual testing of materials is not done.
Today the whole situation is so confused and in flux with terms being redefined and differing proposals for labeling among various states that it is not unusual to find products that contain teratogens, or suspected carcinogens, labeled nontoxic. A case in point involves the use of phthalocyanine pigment. In theory, phthalocyanine blue or green in its purest form is not considered hazardous. However, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), byproducts formed during its manufacture, are rarely removed. PCB is a suspected carcinogen and has been associated with chloroacne (skin eruptions). PCB-free phthalocyanine is used almost exclusively in cosmetics, and is rarely used in the manufacture of paint because of its great cost. In fact, not all paint manufacturers even know about the possibility of PCB contamination, which occurs in the production of several other organic pigments. There are many other examples where hazardous contaminates can be found, such as arsenic in some mineral pigments and asbestos in pastels, yet they are not presented with appropriate labeling. Even the new California labeling law will, in most cases, permit toxic contaminants up to 1 percent by weight without notification on the label.
In addition to the presence of hazardous contaminates in certain products, there are cases where the pure form of a chemical is nontoxic only in a particular molecular arrangement. And if that arrangement is accidentally changed through heating or the use of certain solvents or through contact with other substances, it can become toxic. The major ingredient in a product may, therefore, have undergone some undesirable change somewhere during the manufacturing process, or during the actual use of the product, yet the product may still carry a nontoxic label. Furthermore, most people do not realize that the label “nontoxic” does not mean completely safe or nonhazardous in any case, and refers only to exposure to adults, not children.
According to Professor Michael McCann, the author of Artist Beware, “It is estimated that we are exposed to over 20,000 known toxic chemicals, and 500 new chemicals are introduced into the market every year, most of which have never been tested for their long-term effects on the human body.” In addition to the introduction of new chemicals, many older chemicals once considered safe are now being questioned and frequently moved to the list of hazardous substances. Cadmium colors, for example, have been used since before the turn of the century, yet until recently were not considered highly toxic. The change in attitude about cadmium is due in great part to the illnesses contracted by artists that were traced back to contamination with this heavy metal.
Even with all the advances in artists’ materials through the centuries, artists’ health, if not their very survival, still depends on taking personal responsibility to deal with the dangers associated with the materials in use. If it were only a matter of a one-time exposure or, even in some cases, occasional exposure to some of the hazards described, there would be little cause for serious concern. Most artists are beyond eating and drinking artists’ materials, as well as applying them directly to the skin. What does require serious concern is the fact that we are repeatedly exposing ourselves over decades to hazardous and potentially hazardous material without adequate safeguards, and since there is so much uncertainty about what really is safe and not safe, the single best way to protect yourself is simply to treat all artists’ materials as hazardous.
It is also important to keep some perspective about the relative danger involved in the use of artists’ materials. I have reviewed our hazardous situation with a microscope and we should pull back and look around at other dangers. On June 2, 1986, Newsweek reported that 43,500 people were killed in automobile accidents in the United States in 1985, 150 died in their own bathtubs in 1984, and 25 were killed overseas in terrorist attacks. When you compare that information with the fact that there has never been any death proven (many have been attributed, but not proven) to be caused by artists’ materials, it is difficult to maintain a high degree of panic. However, I would suggest a high degree of concern accompanied by common sense.