Types of Exposure
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Excerpts from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials, by Steven Saitzyk © 1987 All rights reserved.  Reproduction forbidden without written permission.

Many artists work in their homes or live in their studios. Consequently, their living environments are often almost as contaminated as their workplaces and exposure to hazardous materials can be a twenty-four-hour affair. Although the human body is quite resilient when exposed to damaging substances, if it doesn't have time to recover, the effects become cumulative. The first step to reducing your level of exposure is to isolate your workplace, or at least hazardous mate­rials, from your living environment. In addition, allotting only eight hours to each work day will provide an opportunity for your body to recover from expo­sure to hazardous materials.

Many artists use materials in a way that either overwhelms or slips by the natural protective mechanisms that the body has developed during the course of its evolution. When this happens, acute or chronic illness results. Some exam­ples of these protective mechanisms are the outer layer of watertight skin, the sense of smell that detects odors, fine hairs in the respiratory tract that can provoke a cough reflex to rid contaminants, and the liver, which breaks down toxins and renders them harmless. It is important to understand how the body's protective mechanisms work and how they can fail so that measures can be taken that will help provide the necessary protection.


"I don't eat my paints" is one of the most common responses made by artists when confronted with the toxic nature of the materials they use. However, artists frequently, though unintentionally, ingest their paints. Small amounts of paint that collect on the hands and under the nails can be ingested by people who smoke, eat, or bite their nails while they work. A single exposure of this type would not be considered significant, but chronic exposure over the course of a lifetime could have very serious cumulative effects.

Another way that artists often ingest hazardous materials is when working with dry pigments or soft pastels and particularly with an airbrush, where aerosols of fine particles are created, which often remain suspended in the air for several hours. These particles can collect in the mouth or nasal passages and then be swallowed. They can also collect on the hair and clothes and later fall into food.

Good housekeeping and personal hygiene are the keystones to preventing acci­dental ingestion. Not eating, smoking, or biting nails in your workplace are the most basic rules. They are also the rules most commonly violated. There are industrial hand creams (also toxic if ingested) that are helpful in cleanup. Many can also be used as a weak protective hand cream while working. The hand cream should be washed off thoroughly with soap and water when cleanup is complete. Solvents should be avoided for cleaning the hands or any other area of the body because many of them are absorbed by the skin or cause allergic reac­tions. Although gloves would be the most complete protection from collecting paint on the hands, most painters cannot bear the reduced sensitivity in touch.

Protection from ingestion of the dust of dry pigments and airbrushing is best accomplished with a local ventilation system, which can eliminate the need for dust masks and protective clothing and prevent the general contamination of the workplace. A general ventilation system, by itself, would not be adequate in this case and would have to be supplemented by respiratory equipment (masks) and a separate set of clothing, which can be left in the workplace. The workplace should be isolated from the living space and have its own shower.

Artists' paint should never be applied to parts of the body, such as the fingers, or applied directly to the body. Brushes that have been used with paint should not be pointed using the mouth.


Airbrushing; working with powdered pigments, ceramics, and paper mache; and the sanding of a lead-based painting ground are examples of ways in which hazardous dusts are created in the studio. Hazardous vapors are generated during the use of spray adhesives and fixatives that contain toxic solvents, as well as through the use of paint solvents. Such dusts and vapors are a more insidious problem than the problems associated with paints. Dusts are barely visible and can remain suspended in the air indefinitely and larger particles that do settle are easily stirred up again. Although the body's respiratory tract is provided with tiny hairs to catch and repel, through a cough reflex, fine particles that work their way in, this protective defense is easily suppressed with chronic exposure. Smokers best exemplify how quickly the cough reflex can be suppressed. It is also not unusual to work in a dust-filled environment and adapt to the air pollu­tion and thereby conclude that the air is safe, when actually the body's defense is simply no longer functioning.

Vapors from organic solvents, welding, acids, or alkali can also suppress the cough reflex after repeated low-level exposure. Greater levels of exposure will induce choking and possible respiratory failure, but, unless large quantities of these materials are being used, such as in industrial uses, the exposure is more often chronic than acute. There is also a phenomenon called "olfactory fatigue," which contributes to a false sense of safety. An odor, such as that produced by an organic solvent, or any distinct odor, is only detected for the first few min­utes and then becomes unnoticed unless the nasal sensors are given a rest. A common scenario involves an artist who walks into the studio and smells a strong odor of solvent or thinner, proceeds to open a window or two, then takes a few sniffs of air and finds the odor rapidly disappearing. Several hours later, a friend comes to visit. Upon entering the studio, the friend coughs a few times and says "How can you work in here?" The artist is confused by the friend's remarks because he or she no longer smells any odor or coughs.

The use of organic solvents in artists' materials is pervasive. Permanent markers, rubber cement, rubber-cement thinner, spray fixatives, spray adhesives, tur­pentine, petroleum distillates, lacquer thinners, model cements, polyester resins, and epoxy glues can all produce chronic and acute illnesses. Use of these mate­rials without proper precautions can lead to such illnesses as asthma, emphy­sema, bronchitis, leukemia, aplastic anemia, liver damage, kidney damage, and neurological damage. It is often the more pleasant-smelling solvents, such as the aromatic hydrocarbons, that are the most dangerous.

Acrylic emulsion paints, once considered a safe alternative to oil painting because they lacked hazardous solvents and their accompanying vapors, are now not considered so safe. It has been found that when acrylic emulsion paints are used in large quantities, some of the acrylic emulsion does vaporize along with the water and can be inhaled into the lungs. Moreover, the inhalation of the acrylic emulsion during airbrushing is, in some cases, potentially more haz­ardous that the inhalation of the paint's pigments.

When you ingest hazardous materials there is some hope that they may pass through your system, causing little or no damage. Solid particles have no place to go once they've entered the lungs. When autopsies were performed on stone­cutters, and the lungs were opened and inspected, a sandlike material would often come pouring out. Many containers for solvents and sprays have a warning that the product should be used with "adequate ventilation." Adequate ventila­tion means that the air in the environment is exchanged for fresh air at least every fifteen to twenty minutes. This does not take place by simply opening the windows and doors. For proper ventilation there must be a constant stream of fresh air flowing through the environment with only one entrance and one exit at opposite extremes. Adequate ventilation can be obtained by one of two sys­tems-a general exhaust system or a local exhaust system.

Protection from the inhalation of small particles, like dusts, or small amounts of solvent vapors can be achieved with the use of a localized ventilation system. If the scale of the artwork is beyond the scope of a local exhaust system, how­ever, then it is necessary to have a general ventilation system supplemented with an air-purifying respirator, such as a mask, as well as a separate set of work clothes that can be left in the workplace. In painting or printing, a general exhaust system may be the only practical possibility.

The purpose of ventilation by a fan is to pull air through the environment, not blow air into it, which simply mixes the air rather than exchanges it. There are two types of exhaust fans that are used to pull air through the environment and expel the contaminated air to the outside. The first is the axial flow fan, which is used primarily in general ventilation systems. This fan looks like a standard household fan with a propeller driving the air. There are explosion-proof vari­eties of axial flow fans, where the electric motor is protected to prevent sparks from the motor igniting a fire when large volumes of flammable solvents are used. The blades are also made of a material that will not spark if they become loose and strike the cage. The second type of fan is the centrifugal fan. This type of fan is primarily used in local exhaust systems that are designed to remove dust and is found in the common hair drier.

Almost all fans of this type are sold directly by the manufacturer or through a wholesaler to licensed contractors, who are hired to install them. If you are in a position to have a system installed professionally, do so. Most cities have strict building codes, which are often easily violated, and you may involve some legal risk by designing and installing your own system. However, many of us do not have the financial means to hire a professional yet may have some background in basic construction. I have had some success in ventilating small areas with the type of fan used to ventilate household cooking areas, sometimes called a kitchen fan. Many of these fans, which can be purchased at most retail building supply stores, are easy to install and hook up to either rigid or flexible ventilat­ing ducting. For less than fifty dollars I was able to acquire a fan that was rated for 230 cubic feet per minute (CFM). This means that this fan, if properly installed, could change the air of a 10' wide x 12' long x 8' high room in a little more than four minutes. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that general ventilation is based on dilution and if hazardous material is in the air, it would take considerably longer than four minutes to remove it. Using the type of fan I mentioned in a local ventilation system could result in quick removal. More sophisticated fans or ventilation systems will require special ordering through a friendly hardware store.

When installing an exhaust fan it is important to consider where the expelled air is going, and care must be taken so that contaminated air is not reentering the studio or entering a neighbor's studio.

Air-purifying respirators purify the air as it is drawn through filters or cartridges when you inhale and are the type of respirator commonly used by artists for respiratory protection. An air-purifying respirator should never be the primary source of protection, but should be used only as a backup for a ventilation system. OSHA forbids the use of respirators as a general-use primary protection in industrial workplaces. A respirator does not completely purify the air that passes through it, but rather reduces the level of hazardous materials to what is considered safe by the government. A respirator is also easily overwhelmed if the concentration of hazardous materials is great. Consequently, a respirator should always be used in conjunction with a ventilation system.

There are three types of air-purifying respirators. The first type is for such particulate matter as dusts, mists, and metal fumes. These respirators work by filtering the particles from the air. Each kind of filter is coded to indicate what type of particles it performs with best. A is for asbestos, which is found in chalks, pastels, and clays. M is for mists found in airbrushing. D is for dusts, which are found when working with dry pigments. F is for fumes such as those found in stained glass welding. Filters are also combined, such as DM for dusts and mists.

Filter masks are not effective against chemical vapors such as turpentine. To protect against vapors and gases, a second type of air-purifying respirator, which has a chemical cartridge, is needed. Such a cartridge will absorb or chemically react with vapors and gases to remove them from the air. Just as there are specific types of filters for different types of particles, so there are different cartridges. The two models that most concern the artist are the organic vapor (OV) cartridge for evaporating solvents like turpentine and mineral spirits, and the paint, lacquer, and enamel mist (PLE) cartridge, which is used primarily for airbrush paints and lacquers that are dissolved organic solvents.

The third type of air-purifying respirator is a combination of the preceding two. A filter is placed over the cartridge to protect against hazardous materials that have more than one characteristic; airbrushing with an oil paint, for exam­ple, creates both mists and vapors.

The fit of a respirator is as important as selecting the correct filter or cartridge. If it does not fit well, it is useless. A proper fit may be impossible for men with beards or people with prominent cheekbones. You should test the fit before use.

Do not remove an air-purifying respirator from your face until the air is no longer contaminated. A respirator containing cartridges should be stored in a plastic bag because the cartridges work all the time whether or not you are using them.

When acquiring an air-purifying respirator, check the expiration date and read the literature about how to test for worn-out cartridges.


Toxic substances can enter the body through cuts or abrasions in the skin as well as through direct absorption. Genuine vermilion, which is mercuric sulfide, is one of the few pigments that can be absorbed directly into the skin. Even such mild solvents as turpentine have recently been found to cross the skin barrier, enter the body, and cause serious health problems. Such solvents as turpentine, which are used to thin paint, can help other chemicals that otherwise would not penetrate the skin to do so. Some chemicals can react directly with the skin and cause burns. Moreover, skin allergies to artists' materials are more common than most artists realize.

Like the skin, the eyes, nasal passages, and mouth are parts of the outer body that are often the first points of contact with hazardous substances. They are most sensitive to exposure, as well as most easily damaged. Additionally, the mouth and nose allow hazardous vapors and solid particles to pass more easily into the blood stream.

Just as there are chemically specific cartridges for respirators, there are specific types of gloves designed to protect the skin from specific chemical groups. For the painter who uses turpentine, paint thinner, and mineral spirits, gloves made of neoprene rubber provide adequate protection. The latex gloves widely available in drugstores as well as in some art supply stores are not effective with any of these solvents.

Gloves of any type are unpopular among artists because of the reduced sensitivity to touch. Although not as effective as gloves, protective hand creams are used as an alternative. There are two types of protective hand creams, watersoluble and water-insoluble. The water-soluble hand creams protect against organic solvents. When using this form of protection, the cream should be washed off frequently and reapplied to insure that it is acting as an effective barrier. Before eating, all hand creams should be thoroughly removed and the hands washed.

As for the protection of the eyes, nose, and throat, adequate ventilation is best.

Excerpts from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials, by Steven Saitzyk © 1987 All rights reserved.  Reproduction forbidden without written permission.

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