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Monona Rossol, Health and Safety Officer for

United Scenic Artists, Local USA-829, IATSE

October 10, 1995

Copyright 1994 Monona Rossol@ MS., MFA,4., industrial hygienist (text updated 11/29/94)

The diseases caused by painting and pigment grinding have been observed since Ramazini wrote about them in 1713. Back then, painters did not know about the chemical hazards in their paints as we do now.


Today artists use a vast array of different paints; however, these products have many properties in common because almost all of them contain pigments suspended in vehicles or bases.

Vehicles usually contain a liquid such as an oil, a solvent, or water. Cleaners and thinners for most paints are these same liquids or liquids which are compatible with them. For example, turpentine will thin and clean up oil paints.


Drawing materials are pigments suspended in vehicles. Some drawing material vehicles include wax (crayons), inert minerals (pastels, conte crayons, chalks), and liquids (solvent and water-based inks and marking pens). Pencils contain "leads" made of graphite and clay ("lead" pencils) or pigmented clay/binder mixtures (colored pencils).

The hazards of both painting and drawing materials arise from exposure to their pigments, vehicles, and solvents.


The origins of pigments and dyes are lost in antiquity, although we know that they sprang from common natural products such as minerals, berries, roots, and insects. When mauve, the first synthetic dye, was discovered in 1856, it catalyzed the development of the whole organic chemical industry. Since then a host of synthetic chemical dyes and pigments have been created.

It is necessary to consider pigments and dyes together since the distinction between pigments and dyes often is based on usage and physical properties rather than on chemical constitution. The principle characteristic of a pigment which distinguishes it from a dye is that it is substantially insoluble in the medium in which it is used. In fact, there are numerous instances in which the same chemical product serves as either a dye or a pigment. Thus it is often difficult to understand how various types of colorants are classified.


Companies selling paints, inks, pigments and dyes list colors in many ways, sometimes using traditional names (Prussian blue, Mars brown etc.), simple colors (white, red, etc.), and sometimes fanciful names designed to attract customers (peacock blue). As a result, it is almost impossible to know the actual color chemicals to which these names refer.

One answer to this identification problem is to prevail upon dye and paint manufacturers and distributors to reveal their products' internationally accepted Color Index (C.I.) names and/or numbers. All but a handful of commercial pigments and dyes are assigned these identifying names and/or numbers. Many responsible manufacturers of fine arts products already provide this service for customers.

Another way to identify some dyes and pigments is by their Chemical Abstracts Service numbers. However, not all pigments and dye have Chemical Abstracts Service numbers.

At the very least, artists need to know if the pigments they use are classified either as inorganic or organic chemicals.

INORGANIC PIGMENTS come from the earth (ochres, for example), or they are manufactured from metals or minerals (like lead white or cerulean blue). These pigments have been used for many years and their toxic effects are fairly well known. The lead-containing colors are especially toxic and have a long history of causing poisoning. For this reason they are banned in consumer wall paints. But artists' paints and inks, boat paints, automobile paints, and metal priming paints may still employ them.

ORGANIC PIGMENTS are either from natural sources such as Alizarin crimson from madder root or they are synthesized from organic chemicals. Examples of synthetic pigments include phthalo blue and the fluorescent colors.

There are hundreds of organic pigments used in art materials. Most of the natural organic pigments are not particularly toxic. Only a small percentage of the synthetic pigments have been studied for toxicity or long-term hazards. Of those which have been studied, some have been shown to be toxic, some are not toxic, and some cause cancer in animals. Some synthetic pigments also are hazardous because they contain highly toxic impurities such as cancer-causing PCBs. (These impurities, polychlorinated biphenyls, are unwanted side-products created during manufacture.)

Some pigments are related to the chemical "benzidine" ,which is known to cause bladder cancer. Benzidine pigments and dyes may also cause this disease. Recent epidemiological studies of artist painters and industrial painters found elevated incidence of diseases, especially bladder cancer.


There are only a few hundred pigments which are light-fast enough to be used in art. These pigments are used in oils, acrylics, alkyds, pastels, colored pencils, and all colored materials used in high-quality fine arts products. The hazards of these pigments are listed in a large chart which is available from the U.S.A. Health and Safety Officer.

Paints with fugitive pigments (those which fade with time or exposure to light) can be used for work which is not expected to endure many years, such as theatrical scenery or props, commercial art, or children's art work. Artists who use untraditional paints such as consumer wall paints will also find that the pigments in these paints fade. Fugitive pigments are often complex organic chemicals whose long-term hazards are not well-studied.

Inhalation is the route by which pigments are most hazardous. Processes during which pigments could be inhaled include working with raw powdered pigments; using dusty chalks or pastels; sanding or chipping paints; airbrushing or spraying paints; and heating or torching paints until pigments fume.

Skin contact with pigments is less hazardous. Pigments usually are not absorbed in significant amounts by skin contact. However, some contaminants in pigments such as PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyls) could be skin absorbed. And some pigments can cause dermatitis or skin irritation. Preventing skin contact through good hygiene can prevent these problems. Good hygiene also can prevent, accidental ingestion of paint pigments.


Common vehicles include oils, wax, water, egg yolk, casein, resins, and polymer emulsions and solvent solutions. Vehicles usually also contain additives such as stabilizers (to keep ingredients in suspension), preservatives, plasticizers, antioxidants, fillers, wetting agents, retarders, and more. These additives affect paint characteristics such as drying time and workability. The hazards of many of these additives have not been well researched. And manufacturers often are reluctant to divulge the identity of these additives.

Vehicle preservatives can be especially hazardous since their purpose is to kill microorganisms. Common paint preservatives include formaldehyde (sometimes in the form of paraformaldehyde or formalin), phenol, mercury compounds, bleach, and a host of commercial fungicides and pesticides.

Even though these additives are present in small amounts, they have caused illness in artists. For example, a mural artist developed mercury poisoning some years ago from soluble mercury preservatives used in her paints.

Vehicle ingredients can be divided into volatile (will evaporate into the air) and nonvolatile components. Since nonvolatile ingredients do not become airborne, they usually present no significant hazard to artists unless they are used in techniques that make them available to be inhaled, such as spray painting. Some resins and vehicle solids are associated with allergies.

Volatile vehicle ingredients, on the other hand, can be inhaled by artists while they work or while paints or inks are drying. Acrylic paints, for example, usually contain ingredients which release ammonia and formaldehyde gases while they dry. Permanent markers contain solvents which evaporate and can be inhaled.


Solvents may be found in paints and inks or may be used to thin and clean up materials. Solvents are also found in products used with painting and drawing such as varnishes, shellacs, lacquers, and fixatives. These products include resins such as damar, mastic, copal, lac, shellac, acrylic, and other plastic resins dissolved in solvents. (Some of these resins have been known to cause allergies.)

Solvents commonly used in paints, thinners, varnishes, etc., include turpentine, paint thinner, mineral spirits, methyl alcohol, ethyl alcohol, acetone, toluene, xylene, ethyl and other acetates, and petroleum distillates. Solvents are some of the most dangerous chemicals used in painting. Details of their hazards are available from the Union Health and Safety Officer.'


The hazards of each type of painting or drawing will depend on the toxicity of the ingredients of the materials and how much exposure occurs during use. The most hazardous exposure to paints will occur if they are air-brushed sprayed, or otherwise made airborne. These processes always require local exhaust ventilation.

When paint and ink are applied by brushing, rollering, dipping and other methods which do not cause pigments and vehicles to become airborne, precautions will vary depending on the hazards of each paint or ink.



The following hazards and precautions apply only to paint and ink- techniques such as brushing, rollering, and dipping which to not cause pigments and vehicles to become airborne

ACRYLIC PAINTS (WATER-BASED EMULSIONS) are composed of synthetic acrylic resins and pigments with many additives usually including an ammonia-containing stabilizer and formaldehyde preservatives. The small amounts of ammonia and formaldehyde released during drying can cause respiratory irritation and allergies. Formaldehyde has caused cancer in animals. A low rate of dilution ventilation such as that provided by a window exhaust fan should be sufficient.

ACRYLIC PAINTS (SOLVENT-BASED) are synthetic acrylic resins and pigments dissolved in solvents. The solvents should be identified and ventilation sufficient to keep the solvent's concentration at a safe level should be provided.

ALKYD PAINTS are alkyd resins and pigments dissolved in solvents. Provide dilution ventilation at a rate sufficient to keep solvent's concentrations at safe levels.

ARTIST'S OILS are pigments mulled into oils such as pre-polymerized linseed oil. There usually are no volatile ingredients, but oil paints are commonly thinned and cleaned up with solvents such as paint thinner. Dilution ventilation sufficient to keep solvent exposure low should be provided. Some people use oil paints without solvents and clean brushes and skin with baby oil followed by soap and water. This is a very safe way to work and requires no special ventilation.

CASEINS are made from dried milk, pigments, and preservatives. Some contain ammonium hydroxide which can be irritating to the skin and eyes and dust from the powdered paint should not be inhaled. There are usually very strong preservatives added because the casein is a good source of food for microorganisms. When painting with brushes or rollers, ordinary comfort ventilation should be sufficient.

CHARCOAL has no known significant hazards.

CONSUMER OIL PAINTS AND ENAMELS contain pigments, fillers, and a variety of solvents. A common solvent for these paints is paint thinner. Sufficient dilution ventilation should be provided.

CONSUMER LATEX PAINTS are primarily pigments and water emulsions of various plastic resins. Most also contain between 5 and 15 percent solvents. On occasion, these solvents are the highly toxic glycol ethers (a list of Common Solvents and Their Hazards is available from the Union Health and Safety Officer which can be skin-absorbed and inhaled. Dilution ventilation and proper gloves should be provided. Men and women planning families and pregnant women should avoid exposure to paints containing the glycol ethers.

CRAYONS are pigments in wax. Most have no significant hazards because the pigments are contained. Techniques which involve melting crayons may produce toxic emissions from wax and pigment decomposition which would require exhaust ventilation.

DRAWING INKS may contain hazardous dyes and solvents. Skin contact should be avoided. Ventilation is needed only if extraordinary amounts are used or if the solvents are especially toxic.

FRESCO consists of pigments ground in lime water (calcium hydroxide) which is corrosive to eyes, skin, and respiratory tract. Gloves and goggles should be worn.

ENCAUSTICS are pigments suspended in molten white refined wax such as beeswax along with drying oils, Venice turpentine, and natural resins. Working with powdered pigments is very hazardous (see above). Heating waxes can release highly irritating wax decomposition products such as acrolein and formaldehyde. Torching the wax surface can cause both wax and pigments to fume. The solvents and wax and pigment fumes require local exhaust ventilation.

EPOXY PAINTS are two part epoxy resin systems and containing highly toxic and sensitizing organic chemicals and diluents (solvents). Some contain highly toxic glycidyl ether solvents. Wear gloves, goggles, and avoid inhalation with local exhaust ventilation or respiratory protection.

GOUACHE is an opaque water color which contains pigments, gums, water, preservatives, glycerin, opacifiers, and other ingredients. The opacifiers may be chalk, talc, and other substances. Formaldehyde may be used as a preservative. Ordinary comfort ventilation should be sufficient ventilation unless very large amounts are used.

MARKING PENS contain pigments or dyes in a liquid. The liquid may be water or a solvent. Water-based markers are usually safer. Of the solvent-based markers, those containing ethyl alcohol are the safest. Others may contain very toxic solvents. Solvent-based markers require some ventilation.

OILS used in oil painting usually are not hazardous in themselves. Most contain chemical dryers which may contain lead or manganese. Linseed oil is the most common oil, but poppy seed, walnut, sunflower, and some synthetic oils also have found use in oil painting. Since most come from plants and trees, allergies to the oils are not uncommon.

PASTELS, CHALKS AND CONTE CRAYONS are pigments in binders and chalk (calcium carbonate), talc, barytes (barium sulfate mineral), or other powdered inert minerals. Oil pastels are much safer because they contain small amounts of oils and waxes which keep dust from getting airborne. "Dustless" chalks and Conte crayons also are easy to use safely because they contain binders which prevent creation of respirable-sized dust particles. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to use dusty pastels and chalks without being exposed to pigment and vehicle dust. A dust mask and ventilation (such as working very near a window exhaust fan) may reduce exposure.

PENCIL AND GRAPHITE- drawing usually exposes artists to such small amounts of dust that they are not hazardous. Very large amounts of graphite can cause black lung disease similar to that which afflicts coal miners.

TEMPERA PAINTS are pigments suspended in emulsions of substances such as oils, egg, gum casein, and wax. Preservatives are added to kill microorganisms which would feed on the vehicles. If no solvents are used in these paints, ordinary comfort ventilation should be sufficient for working with liquid paints.

VARNISHES are natural or synthetic resins or waxes which are usually dissolved in organic chemical solvents. Those dissolved in alcohols are less toxic than those containing turpentine or aromatic hydrocarbons. Varnishes should be used following all precautions for solvent use.'

WATERCOLORS (dry cakes) are composed of pigments, preservatives (often paraformaldehyde) and binders such as gum Arabic or gum tragacanth. liquid watercolors may also contain water, glycerine, glucose, and other materials. Both liquid and dry watercolors may give off small amounts of formaldehyde, but they generally need no exhaust ventilation.


1. Choose studio locations with safety in mind. Floors, tables, and shelving should be made of materials which can be easily cleaned. Isolate the studio from living spaces unless you intend to use materials with no significant hazards such as watercolors and pencils. Never use toxic paints, solvents, or drawing materials in kitchens, bedrooms, living areas, etc.

2. Obtain Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) on all paints, inks, thinners, varnishes, and other products. If paint pigments are not identified by their Color Index names or numbers, ask your supplier for this information. Some suppliers' catalogs list the Color Index names of their paint pigments. These suppliers should be favored over less informative ones.

3. Use water-based products over solvent-containing ones whenever possible.

4. Buy premixed paints and avoid working with powdered pigments if possible. Pigments and paints are most hazardous and inhalable in a dry powdered state.

5. Choose brushing and dipping techniques over spray methods whenever possible.

6. Use Material Safety Data Sheets and product labels to identify the hazards of any toxic solvents, preservatives or other chemicals in paints and drawing materials. Look up the hazards of the pigments in the chart available from the Union Health and Safety Officer.

7. Plan studio ventilation to control the hazards of the materials and processes you use. For example, if solvents are used, provide sufficient dilution ventilation to remove vapors from the studio. if powdered paints or pigments are used, plan local exhaust ventilation such as a chemical fume hood or spray booth.

8. Avoid dusty procedures. Sanding dry paints, sprinkling dry pigments or dyes on wet paint or glue, and other techniques which raise dust should be discontinued or performed in a local exhaust environment or outdoors.

9. Spray or airbrush only under local exhaust conditions such as in a spray booth. A proper respirator may provide additional protection. Use a dust/mist respirator for water-based paints. Use a paint, lacquer, and enamel mist (PLE) respirator for solvent-containing products.

10. Follow all solvent safety rules if you use solvent containing products, and give extra attention to fire safety.

1 1. Avoid skin contact with paints and pigments by wearing gloves or using barrier creams. Use gloves with dyes. Wash off paint splashes with safe cleaners like a) baby oil followed by soap and water, b) nonirritating waterless hand cleaners, or c) plain soap and water. Never use solvents or bleaches to remove splashes from your skin.

12. Wear protective clothing, including a full-length smock or coveralls. Leave these garments in your studio to avoid bringing dusts home. Wash clothing frequently and separately from other clothing. Wear goggles if you use caustic paints or corrosive chemicals.

13. If respirators must be used, follow all rules regarding their use.'

14. Avoid ingestion of materials; eat, smoke, or drink outside your work-place. Never point brushes with your lips or hold brush handles in your teeth. Wash your hands before eating, smoking, applying make-up and other personal hygiene procedures.

15. Keep containers of paint, powdered pigments, solvents, etc., closed except when you are using them.

16. Work on easy-to-clean surfaces and wipe up spills immediately. Wet mop and sponge floors and surfaces. Do not sweep.

17. Follow@ Material Safety Data Sheet advice and purchase a supply of materials to control spills and for chemical disposal (e.g., kitty litter, solvent spill kits).

18. Dispose of waste solvents, paints, and other materials in accordance with health, safety, and environmental protection regulations.

19. Always be prepared to provide your doctor with precise information about the chemicals you use and your work practices. Arrange for regular blood tests for lead if you use lead-containing paints or pigments.


1. A CAS number is one assigned by the Chemical Abstracts Service, an organization that indexes information published in Chemical Abstracts by the American Chemical Society. The CAS number is a concise means of identification. (Chemical Abstracts Service, Division of American Chemical Society, Box 3012, Columbus, OH 43210; 614/447-3600.)

2. Miller, Barry A., Silverman, D.T., Hoover, R.N., Blair, A. "Cancer Risk among Artistic Painters." American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 1986; 9281-287.See also Miller, Barry A., and Blair, Aaron. "Cancer Risks Among Artists." Submitted for publication to Leonardo (Journal of the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology), New York, 1989; and "Occupational Risks of Bladder Cancer in the United States 1. White Men," Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Vol. 81, No. 19, Oct. 4, 1989.

3. The United Scenic Artists has access to the educational materials found in the Artist's Complete Health and Safety Guide, 2nd edition, Allworth Press, New York, 1994. Call M. Rossol] (see numbers on page 1) for the materials you need on pigments, solvents, respirators, and other subjects referenced here. The book is also available from ALLWORTH PRESS, 10 East 23 Street, New York, NY 10010.

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