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.


Types of Exposure

Allergic Reactions

In Case of Illness

In Case of Fire