top of page
Top Hazards

You would be outraged if someone brought into your home industrial solvents, chemicals containing high con­ centrations 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 con­ form, 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, Stand­ ard Practice for Art Materials for Chronic Health Hazards. A copy of this five­ page 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 confom1,  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 021 I 6." Their certification  process  primarily involves the submission  by a manufacturer of a fommla for a product for review by the institute's  tox­ icologist; 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  haz­ ardous.  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  asbes­ tos 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 I 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,  there­ fore, have undergone some undesirable change somewhere during the manufac­ turing 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 sub­ stances. 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 haz­ ardous material without adequate safeguards, and since there is so much uncer­ tainty 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  auto­ mobile 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.


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 approx­ imately 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 con­ taminated 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 ven­ tilation 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  non­ toxic 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, tur­ pentine, and carbontetrachloride 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  mech­ anism 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.



Many artists 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 pastel 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 perfom1ed on stone­ cutters, and the lungs were opened and inspected, a sand-like  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,  how­ ever, 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

Type of Exposure

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  ventilat ing 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 exam­ ple, 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, water­ soluble 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.



Allergic reactions can mimic both acute and chronic poisoning and it is often difficult to distinguish between the two. It is not unusual to have a low-level chronic health problem either masked or exaggerated by an  allergy.  It is important to distinguish between the two because the prevention  and medical  treatment is different for each. Substances that cause strong allergic reactions  often have to be eliminated, rather than reduced, because even minimal exposure can cause a significant reaction.

Despite the symptomatic similarities, many people are able to distinguish between toxic reactions and allergic reactions. Allergic reactions are often imme­diate and usually out of proportion to the type of exposure. A person using small amounts of turpentine, for example, may react with asthmatic-like symptoms, and when a substitute solvent, such as petroleum distillate, is used the symptoms are gone. Less severe reactions require professional assistance to  determine the cause.


 In addition to the basics, such as having a first aid kit, posting  emergency phone numbers-fire department, doctor, hospital, and Poison  Control  Center-it is important to have a working relationship with a physician who has some sympathy for the occupational hazards inherent in being  an artist.  Establishing such a relationship is not as simple as it sounds for few physicians  are familiar  with treating individuals exposed to hazardous materials in  general.  Even fewer are acquainted with the hazards specifically involved with the creation of profes­sional artwork. Most artists will be unable to find a physician with this special knowledge and will have to come to terms with a local general practitioner or internist.

There are some guidelines that I have found helpful in establishing a rela­tionship with a personal physician. Because symptoms of chronic, low-level poi­soning are vague, they may easily be attributed  to hypochondria.  You  may  well be a hypochondriac, or become one after reading · this chapter, but you do  not wish to be written off as one before there is any proof. You must therefore be as specific as possible in describing your complaint, whenever possible, using the chemical names of the major ingredients of the materials that you have been exposed to and explaining exactly how that exposure has taken place. If you  just say that you believe the source of the problem  is from the artists' materials  that  you are using, most physicians will simply associate the term "artists' materials" with some category of hobby and craft materials rather than  with  industrial solvents and chemicals. There are now specific tests for the detection of many of these chemicals, but if you are not specific, a nonspecific test may be performed, which will generate inconclusive results.

In general, the more "professional" your behavior, the more likely that your physician will work effectively with you. It is important to strike  a  balance between panic and fatalism. You have lived long enough to read this, despite the materials that you have been exposed to.  However,  it is important  to have reg­ular health checkups and tests for the materials to which you are exposed.



A FIRE EXTINGUISHER and a smoke detector are musts for any workplace where flammable materials are used. The extinguisher should be rated for the type of fire that may occur, based on the types of materials in use. There are four classes of fire extinguisher: type A-for wood and paper; type B-for flammable liquids and paints; type C-for electrical fires; type D-for metals. Using the wrong type of extinguisher may not only be ineffective, but spread the fire. Today, thanks to the miracle of plastics, there are several inexpensive, dispos­able extinguishers on the market that can be used on several kinds of fires.

Be sure to check the pressure gauge on the extinguisher once a year.

bottom of page