Before proceeding any further, it would helpful to be define a number of health-related terms. The following are working definitions and are not intended to be exact legal or medical definitions. Also, the definition of “toxic” with regard to art and craft materials is being redefined by new legislation in a few states to include suspected carcinogens, carcinogens, and teratogens. At this time such changes are not yet universally accepted and the following terms have been defined as they have been in the past.
Adequate ventilation is not just opening all the doors and windows. It is having constant exchanges of air, with fresh air replacing the contaminated air approximately every fifteen to twenty minutes. This is generally accomplished only by being outdoors or by having a general ventilation system.
Acute means a single pronounced event, such as an “acute exposure.” In terms of health an “acute illness” would be an immediate and severe reaction by the body.
Chronic is long-lasting or repeated, as in “chronic exposure.” In terms of health, a “chronic illness” is an ongoing illness or one that surfaces from time to time.
Carcinogens are substances that will produce cancer.
General ventilation is a system whereby the hazardous materials in the air are reduced through dilution. An exhaust fan is set up as the sole exit for the contaminated air, and an entrance for a supply of fresh air is established as far away from the fan as possible. This supply of fresh air traveling from one side of the room to the other will dilute the contaminates that accumulate in the air in the room.
Highly toxic means that serious injury or death will result from contact or absorption of a small amount, such as a mouthful, by a healthy adult. Inorganic refers chemically to compounds that do not possess hydrocarbons (a water-carbon chemical structure), but do include oxides and sulfates of carbon. Water, nitric acid, calcium carbonate, and alum are examples of inorganic chemicals used in the process of making artists’ materials or included in the product itself.
Local ventilation is a system whereby the hazardous material are removed before they have an opportunity to disperse into the room’s air. Most local ventilation systems bear a certain resemblance to a large vacuum cleaner, and often contain a hooded area in or under which the work is performed.
Moderately toxic means that temporary to permanent minor injury will result from contact with, or absorption of, a small to moderate amount by a healthy adult.
Mutagens are substances that will produce genetic changes.
Nontoxic means that no detectable injury will occur from contact with, or absorption of, small to moderate amounts by a healthy adult. This term does not mean nonhazardous. Carcinogens and mutagens are rarely considered in nontoxic labeling. And, a nontoxic substance may produce a toxic effect when combined with other substances, or may have a cumulative effect from long-term chronic exposure.
Organic refers chemically to all carbon-based chemicals. Benzene, toluol, turpentine, and carbon tetrachloride are examples of common organic solvents that contain carbon and are used in artists’ materials.
Slightly toxic means that temporary minor injury will result from contact with, or absorption of, a small to moderate amount by a healthy adult. Larger quantities of exposure could, however, cause greater damage.
Synergistic effect is when two or more substances cooperate to produce an effect that is greater than the effect that would have been produced had the substances acted independently of one another. Drinking alcoholic beverages while working with solvents is a good example.
Teratogens are substances that will cause severe birth defects or malformations. Total Body Burden is a term that refers to the burden on the defense mechanism of the body, or the cumulative effects of a particular substance on the body. For example, the body may be able to detoxify itself from infrequent exposures to moderate amounts of a toxin, yet be unable to deal with frequent exposures to small amounts of the same material. The body often needs time to recover from an exposure, and the cumulative effects of small exposures can add up rapidly to overwhelm the body’s defenses.
Toxic means poisonous, or having the ability to destroy life or health on contact or by absorption. There are various degrees of toxicity, such as high, moderate, slight, and nontoxic. The degree of toxicity is determined not only by the nature and the quantity of the substance but by the type of contact or absorption. For example, genuine cadmium red, although an irritant, is considered nontoxic when in contact with the unbroken skin. However, it is highly toxic if the dust from the dry pigment is inhaled or ingested, even in such small a quantity as a mouthful.
Excerpts from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials, by Steven Saitzyk © 1987 All rights reserved. Reproduction forbidden without written permission.