Back Home Up Next

Pregnancy and the Crafts Professional

Hazards and effective precautions for staying safe while you're pregnant

by Monona Rossol


Awareness is the first part of the solution

During pregnancy, a woman's blood volume will increase and the iron in her blood will decrease. This makes her more vulnerable to toxic chemicals such as lead and carbon monoxide that cause anemia. Since she will breathe more air to supply oxygen to the fetus, she will also breathe more dust and fumes.

Despite the mother's susceptibility, however, it is the fetus that is most vulnerable to toxic substances. It can sustain two major types of damage:

1. Birth  defects can be caused by chemicals or drugs which alter the development of organs. This means birth defects only occur in the first three months of pregnancy as the organs are forming.

2. Toxic effects are various kinds of "poisoning" which can occur at any stage of pregnancy and even after birth. For example, lead can damage brain function at any time from early in conception even through adulthood. But it is the fetus that is most susceptible.

Chemicals in craft materials

A vast array of chemicals are used in art and craft materials -- there are more than 2,000 dyes and about 300 pigments. More than 45 different metals and their many compounds are used in metal working, ceramics, glass and related crafts.

Hundreds of chemical solvents can be used to thin hundreds of different natural and synthetic resins, oils and waxes in various paints, inks, varnishes, glues, adhesives and fixatives. Photochemicals number in the thousands. If we count the chemical additives used to modify all these products, then the chemicals artists use number in the tens of thousands.

Only a tiny fraction of these substances have been studied for reproductive effects. For example, a recent study showed that one third of pregnant IBM computer chip workers miscarried after exposure to very small amounts of chemicals called primary glycol ethers. These same chemicals were used in the 1980s in many water-based printmaking inks, latex paints, liquid dyes, felt tip pens and spray paints.

Today, those same art products may contain glycol ethers that are closely related to those used at IBM, but whose effects are not as well-studied. Until more is known, it is wise to avoid unnecessary exposure to these and other art materials.

Common Sense Precautions
for Pregnant Craftspeople

1. Look first to your lifestyle. Eat right, don't drink, don't smoke, and generally take good care of yourself.

2. Don't dwell on past chemical exposures or exposures in the present that are too small to be significant. Stress is not good for you or the fetus. If you feel worried and guilty: welcome to parenthood.

3. Know your materials. Read labels and insist that manufacturers send you material safety data sheets (MSDSs) on all products. Avoid products whose MSDSs do not identify hazardous ingredients (trade secrets).

4. Get good advice. Your personal physician may be a good source of information about chemicals, but doctors who are the most qualified to provide this information are board certified in occupational medicine or toxicology. Additional sources are the Pregnancy Environmental Hotline (617-466-8474) and Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety (212-777-0062).

5. Avoid exposure. No chemical from your work should be getting into your body. If it is not a food, you should not ingest it. If it is not air, you should not inhale it.

6. Protect yourself. Wear gloves or use work methods that keep materials off of the skin. Never eat, drink, apply cosmetics, or do any hygiene tasks in the studio. Never spray, air brush, sand, work with dry powders, or use any material in a form that can be inhaled unless you have proper ventilation or protective equipment.

7. Ask your doctor before using respiratory protection. Occupational physicians often do not recommended air-purifying respirators for people with certain health problems (e.g., heart and lung deficiencies) or for pregnant women due to the increased breathing stress that respirators and masks cause.

8. Listen to your body and your mind. If a chemical makes you feel sick or "woozy," assume it is not good for your baby. But keep in mind: Some chemicals in amounts whose effects your body can't detect can, nevertheless, damage the fetus.

9. Avoid lead in any form. If you must use it, have regular blood lead tests. If you have had lead exposure in years past, tell your doctor, because lead stored in your bones from previous exposures re-enters the blood stream during pregnancy. Some physicians increase calcium supplements in such patients to reduce the amount of lead taken up by the fetus.

10. Don't eat or drink from ceramic ware or lead crystal unless lab tests show that items such as cups, casseroles, and pitchers do not leach lead or any other metal into food. Low-fired ware may leach metals such as lead or boron into your food. Middle range and high-fired pottery may leach other metals such as barium and lithium. Colored wares may leach colorant metals such as cadmium, cobalt and manganese.

11. Keep children out of the studio and away from toxic art materials. Exposures to some toxic substances in childhood can affect the next ;generation.

Label warnings

Manufacturers are only required to label their product's known hazards. Since most of the chemicals in art materials have never been studied for their effects on reproduction, lack of label warnings should not be taken as proof that they are safe. Even the "non-toxic" label should not prompt casual use of any product during pregnancy.


The term "solvent" is applied to liquids that usually dry faster than water and that are used to thin products such as paints, inks, cleaners, paint strippers and aerosol sprays. The solvent for which we have the most data is ethyl alcohol, since we also drink it in alcoholic beverages. Alcohol consumption causes almost all the adverse reproductive effects including:

  • reduced male sex drive and performance,
  • birth defects,
  • reduced male and female fertility,
  • growth retardation and functional deficits in the fetus,
  • spontaneous abortion, and
  • breast milk contamination.

Alcohol also can be absorbed into the body by inhalation when it evaporates from alcohol-containing products such as shellacs, lacquer thinners and inks.

However, alcohol is the least toxic of the solvents. It takes much less of other more toxic solvents to cause adverse effects. Alcohol and all other solvents have many characteristics in common. Most notably, they all are narcotics at some level of exposure. "Glue sniffers" have proven that they can get high -- and even die -- from inhaling vapors from any solvent product: glue, gasoline or spray paints.

Both by inhalation and ingestion, the narcotic effects of solvents and alcohol can damage the fetus' nervous system. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause problems in the fetus, ranging from minor learning difficulties to severe facial deformities and mental retardation, depending on the amount to which the fetus was exposed. Now it seems likely that most solvents are capable of causing similar effects.

Natural solvents

Solvents that come from trees or plants are not innately safer and can cause effects similar to those of alcohol. Alcohol, after all, can be made from fermented grain. Turpentine and citrus solvent (d-limonene) are examples of highly toxic natural solvents. Some natural solvents such as linalool (also from citrus) are essentially unstudied. Some natural plant extracts such as caster oil and acacia were used in the past to abort pregnancies. The word "natural" on a product label should not dissuade craftspeople from asking manufacturers to identify these chemicals and provide material safety data sheets.

Table 1:


Some Metals for Which There Are Reproductive Hazard Data

Adapted from: "Workplace Hazards to Reproductive Health," Department of Labor and Industries, publication #P-413-030-000 (December '91).



Boric Acid, Borates**




Mercury** (Inorganic and Metal Vapor)

1. Reduced Male Sex Drive




2. Male Infertility






3. Female Infertility





4. Spontaneous Abortion





5. Birth Defects




6. Growth Retardation





7. Functional Deficit



8. Childhood Cancer


9. Breast Milk Contamination








Pigments, glass / glaze / enamel ingredient, solder / brazing metals, fire retardant

Stained glass and enamel opacifier, old pigments, historic specimen and taxidermy preservative

Wood preservative, glass / glaze / enamel ingredient, solder fluxes, fire retardant, pesticide

Paint / ink pigments, stained glaze / enamel / glass ingredient, jewelry solders

Ceramic glazes, glass, solder, art paint, ink, casting / welding alloys, paint removal

Glaze / glass / enamel ingredient, clay colorant, welding fume, paint pigments

Pigments, neon sculpture, lustre glazes, old clock pendulums, old mirror backing, thermometers

* Sufficient human evidence
** Sufficient animal evidence/limited human evidence
***Insufficient evidence/uncertainty



Metals and their compounds abound in art materials. In terms of reproductive outcome, metals can be considered either as "minerals" needed for good health (e.g., zinc, calcium or iron) or as "heavy" or "toxic" metals which should be avoided (e.g., lead, cadmium or arsenic). Only a handful of metals have been evaluated for their effects on reproduction (see Table 1).

Metals in the form of minerals are needed by the body in dramatically varying amounts (see Table 2). Some are needed in only very small amounts since they are also toxic. For example, chromium and cobalt are needed by the body in minute amounts, but are toxic and possibly cancer-causing in larger amounts.

Metals (minerals) and nutrition


Table 2:

Mineral RDIs*

Mineral Milligrams
Calcium 1000
Phosphorus 1000
Magnesium 400
Zinc 15
Manganese 2
Copper 2
Chromium** 0.12
Molybdenum** 0.075
Selenium** 0.07
* FDA Reference Daily Intakes
** labels list these in micrograms

A healthy pregnancy depends on a proper balance of food, vitamins and minerals. However, there is still much to learn about the effects of vitamins and minerals. For example, it was discovered only recently that a slight deficiency in folic acid increases the risk of neural tube defects in the fetus. Despite the lack of complete knowledge about nutrition, pregnancy is not the proper time to greatly alter the diet or to experiment with herbs, health foods and metal-containing mineral supplements.

Good reproductive health requires ingesting a proper balance of only those metals needed by the body. This is impossible if metals and minerals are being added to the body by exposure to dusts and fumes from working in the studio.

Uncommon metals

Craftspeople also use some metals in their work about which we know very little. Included are germanium, erbium, niobium and palladium. Some of these are used in metal patinas, neon art and historic photo processes. One especially toxic chemical used in some patinas is tellurium. This highly toxic metal is very likely to be harmful to the fetus as well.

Lead: a special problem

Lead can interfere with almost every phase of male and female reproduction. Lead can affect the fetus at all stages and can affect the development of the child even after it is born.

Adverse effects on mental acuity as measured by IQ tests have been shown to occur in children when blood lead levels reach 10 micrograms per deciliter (10 g/dL). More subtle effects on mental acuity are suspected to occur at even lower levels. The younger the child, the more destructive lead is to mental function. And most vulnerable of all is the fetus.

Blood lead levels of 10 g/dL are considered safe in adults. But if this adult is pregnant, the fetus' blood lead level is roughly the same. This does not mean that the child born to such a woman will be retarded. Instead, it means that children born to these women may have slightly less mental capacity than they would have if they had not been affected by lead.


Since MOST of the chemicals in art materials have NEVER been studied for their effects on reproduction, LACK of label warnings should NOT be taken as proof that they are SAFE.

Other effects of lead levels below 10 g/dL on young children include decreased growth rate, decreased hearing acuity, decreased ability to maintain a steady posture, and neurobehavioral developmental problems. Now new studies indicate that antisocial behavior may be associated with lead exposure.

Animal studies also indicate that the lead to which the fetus is exposed may actually have been deposited in the mother's bones many years before. Now there is a human study of this phenomenon.

Researchers at Macquarie University in Sidney, Australia, studied 13 women who had recently immigrated to Australia from the former Yugoslavia and then became pregnant. The lead to which they were exposed in the Balkans, and which was stored in their bones, has a different molecular weight from the lead in Australia. As their pregnancies progressed, their blood contained greater amounts of the Balkan lead, peaking during the second and third trimesters. By the end of the pregnancy, as much as 60 percent of the total amount of lead in the blood came from the women's own bones.

Children and young women must be protected from lead exposure to protect them from lead's toxic effects and to prevent them from passing this lead on to their children.


  • Richard J. Lewis, Sr.
    Reproductively Active Chemicals: A Reference Guide, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1991 (606-525-6600).
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Preventing Lead Poisoning in Young Children, A Statement by the Centers for Disease Control, October 1991 (202-619-0257).
  • U.S. Department of Labor and Industries, "Workplace Hazards to Reproductive Health," publication # P-413-030-000 (December '91) (202-219-6666).

Estrogenic chemicals

According to some experts, male children are now conceived and born into a virtual "sea of estrogens" -- chemicals that mimic the female hormone estrogen.

Research indicates that estrogenic chemicals cause adverse reproductive effects and birth defects in male birds, fish and mammals. Experts theorize that humans may be showing similar effects including:

  • the worldwide reduced sperm count,
  • a three- to four-fold increase in cancer of the testicles,
  • increases in male reproductive organ birth defects.

The estrogenic chemicals can also affect females and are associated with increased rates of breast and other cancers, with premature births and inter-uterine growth retardation. Substances that either mimic estrogen or alter hormone function which craftspeople may encounter include:

  • Bisphenol A, in some epoxy resins, other plastics, and in flame retardants,
  • Dioxins and PCBs which contaminate some dyes and pigments, in waste oils, in old electric equipment (e.g., transformers and fluorescent light ballasts), or which are used to mount slides in art conservation (Arochlor),
  • Nonyl phenol, octyl phenol and their derivatives, found in epoxy resins, some latex paints, and special detergents and
  • Tung oil, found in many varnishes, coatings and inks.


GOOD reproductive HEALTH requires ingesting a proper balance of ONLY those metals NEEDED by the body.

Other chemicals

There are many other chemicals used in art materials which may have reproductive effects such as formaldehyde or chemicals which are emitted by art processes such as carbon monoxide from kilns. It is also likely that there are serious threats to the fetus among the thousands of chemicals in art materials which have never been studied for reproductive and developmental effects.

Lifestyle hazards

There is ample evidence that certain lifestyle practices will harm the fetus. Included are smoking, drinking and recreational drug-taking. For artists, avoidance of these practices is especially important. Smoking exacerbates the damage caused by inhaling dusts and fumes in the studio. Drinking alcohol adds to the effects caused by exposure to other solvents. Drugs that alter brain chemistry often interact adversely with solvents and other art material ingredients.

Monona Rossol, M.S., M.F.A., is a chemist, artist, and industrial hygienist. She is the founder and president of ACTS (Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety), a not-for-profit corporation based in New York City and dedicated to providing health and safety services to the arts. Contact ACTS at: 181 Thompson St., #23, New York, NY 10012-2586; (212) 777-0062; e-mail:


Number of Visits to this site since Feb.18, 2008  Hit Counter
Over 900,000 since its inception in 2002.
Questions regarding materials and the creative process will be considered a request for a consult and
may be sent to Consulting services are available for a
Copyright 2001 True Art
Last modified: 03/19/09