Art Materials Safety

Many art materials produced today are safe to use, but only if reasonable precautions are taken. Artists’ materials may contain volatile solvents, lead, harmful dust, or other toxic substances. As an example cadmium is an extremely toxic metal found in today’s oil paints (cadmium red, cad yellow, etc.). Lead, arsenic, chromium, silica dust, etc., can also be found in selected art materials. These art supplies can be purchased but with the caveat that their availability in the marketplace assumes proper manufacturing techniques, use, disposal, and so on.

This article provides sources for information about using artist materials safely; proper disposal is a subject unto itself and will be only briefly mentioned.

Fortunately, with the advent of computers and the ease of information searching, information on art safety is literally at your fingertips. And if you prefer the feel of paper, then your local library either has or can easily obtain books devoted to the subject of art materials safety. Ask your librarian for help in finding pertinent resources.

An online search reveals several books on the topic including:

Topics covered in these and other books contain information on a wide variety of materials (pigments and binders, solvents, thinners, and more), techniques, and harmful practices. Search your favorite online or brick and mortar book store.

Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) should always be available or obtainable from your supplier or the manufacturers of the materials (check the manufacturers or suppliers website or ask your retailer). These sources should provide the information at no cost. Several online sources will provide the documents for a fee. Materials of questionable origin or those being illegally distributed may lack such documentation; these materials should be avoided. Follow this hyperlink to Material Safety Datasheet Sources at the University of California, San Diego, for a list of online MSDS sources. You should also be aware that MSDSs are written for the industrial user, not individuals, and can contain language that you might not understand. When in doubt, ask pertinent questions of the manufacturer – by law they must have the telephone number on product labels.

Many Internet websites have pages devoted to safety as it pertains to art supplies and their use and disposal. For example, review the safety tips at InfoTox. International, Inc., a toxicology consulting company. http://www.infotox.com/art_materials.html.

The city of Tucson, AZ has several Internet pages devoted to the health and safety aspects of art at http://www.tucsonaz.gov/arthazards/. This site is a “Searchable Database of Health and Safety Information for Artists”. It covers topics such as woodworking, glass, textiles, ceramics, printmaking, metalworking, etc. They cover flammables, personal protective equipment, disposal, storage, Material Safety Data Sheets, etc. Woodworking is an interesting example of an area where people may not realize there are any health hazards to consider, and it underscores the necessity of hazard material awareness.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is located at http://www.cpsc.gov/.

A search on this site on the topics of artist materials, art materials, art supplies, etc. revealed a list of documents pertaining to improperly labeled ceramic glazes, paint brushes recalled because they had lead paint on the handle, imported crayons contained small amounts of lead, companies who were fined for not performing toxicology tests, and etc., etc.

The Commission has issued a document on the labeling of art materials including children’s art and drawing products (http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/5016.html). An excerpt from that page reads:

“Parents and others buying art materials, school supplies and toys such as crayons, paint sets, or modeling clay should be alert and purchase only those products which are accompanied by the statement “Conforms to ASTM D-4236.”

The Art & Creative Materials Institute (http://www.acminet.org/) states:

“The Art & Creative Materials Institute, Inc. (ACMI) is an international association, composed of a diverse and involved membership, and is recognized as the leading authority on art and creative materials. Founded in 1936, ACMI was organized to assist its members in providing the public with art and creative materials for children and artists that are non-toxic. The Institute's members are art and creative material manufacturers, and currently there are over 210 members. Of the 60,000 art and creative material formulations evaluated to date, 100% of the children's products and 85% of those meant for the adult artist are certified as non-toxic. All products in the program undergo extensive toxicological evaluation and testing before they are granted the right to bear the ACMI certification seals.”

Visit them for detailed information on materials.

You should also be aware that the word “non-toxic” is unregulated and not covered under any US federal law. Something can rightly be called “non-toxic” when it has been tested, and its ingredients tested separately, and then the test methods and test results are available to consumers. There are more than 150,000 art materials on the market – not all of them have been tested.

The Art Materials Information and Education Network (AMIEN) states they are

“a resource for artists dedicated to providing the most comprehensive, up-to-date, accurate, and unbiased factual information about artists' materials … information is based on the most current scientific knowledge from peer-reviewed sources regarding quality, durability, and health hazards, and on original research conducted at AMIEN.”

They provide lectures and workshops on a variety of topics including health and safety, artist’s tools, solvents, thinners, varnishes, coatings, tempera, encaustic, pastels, and so on.

Visit their website at http://www.amien.org/. More information about their services can be found in their downloadable .PDF brochure on the SERVICES page.

ASTM International, formerly the American Society of Testing and Materials, has a subcommittee (D01.57) focused on artist materials. A list of active and proposed new international standards can be found at: http://www.astm.org/cgi-bin/SoftCart.exe/COMMIT/SUBCOMMIT/D0157.htm?L+mystore+lzqk5347+1182197171

Items of interest relevant to this article at that website are:

Their main website is http://www.astm.org.

Many colleges, universities and art schools provide information on art safety. For example the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth has safety information for their students on working with ceramics, jewelry, metals, printmaking, photography, sculpture, wood, textile and fiber arts. Visit http://www.umassd.edu/cvpa/safety/intro.html. Other schools with pertinent web pages include the Rhode Island School of Design and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

There are a host of sites devoted to the topic of artist materials and artist health issues on the Internet. For example the State of California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) has a list of art and craft materials that cannot be legally purchased for children in grades K-6 for California schools.

Dig for information on your materials and techniques even if you think they are safe. Research your techniques, handling, storage, and disposal methods. Always consider the source of your information and its qualifications.

The proper choice of gloves, masks, respirators and other safety gear is an important matter. Your materials supplier should be able to tell you what types of protection are required. A partial list of items to consider on protective gear:

  • Select quality products suitable for the task you intend to perform and the materials you intend to use.
  • No protective glove is impermeable to everything. Select the correct glove for the techniques and materials being used. Click these hyperlinks for an Overview of Gloves, Glove Selection and Usage, and a Glove Selection Chart from the University of California, San Diego.
  • People have or can develop allergies to latex gloves. Follow this hyperlink to information on Latex Glove Allergies, also from the University of California, San Diego.
  • Make sure protective gear is properly fitted. An air gap around the edge of a dust mask is an obvious sign that it doesn’t fit properly. Some protective gear requires proper fitting and yearly fit testing by qualified personnel; take such recommendations seriously.
  • Learn how to properly put your dust mask or respirator on and how to take it off.
  • Online searches reveal several sources for masks and respirators; for example the U.S. Department of Labor OSHA web page on Respiratory Protection, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Respirator Fact Sheet (subtitled “What You Should Know in Deciding Whether to Buy Escape Hoods, Gas Masks, or Other Respirators for Preparedness at Home and Work”), and etc.
  • Commercial sources for particular types of masks or respirators can easily be found with search engines once you have identified the make and model required.
  • Keep protective gear properly cleaned and maintained.
  • Store your gear in a suitable location away from toxic materials.
  • Maintain your gear per manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Don’t re-use items meant for one time use.
  • Protective gear degrades over time. Replace it per manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Err on the side of caution.
  • Be aware of any cross contamination issues (i.e. – don’t handle your dust mask or rub your forehead with contaminated gloves).
  • Dispose of protective gear per manufacturer’s instructions. If they are not clean, treat them as hazardous waste.

Use common sense when working with materials. A partial list of items to consider:

  • Read the label.
  • Read the label and become aware of what the terminology and references mean.
  • Learn what should be on the label, but might not be.
  • Look for caution labels; avoid such materials. They are not appropriate for children.
  • As mentioned earlier, buy art materials that state “Conforms to ASTM D-4236” on the label. Be aware that because of a coordinated European Union initiative, US labeling laws - and as a consequence ASTM D4236 - will be greatly revised during the next five years (by 2012).
  • Always use proper ventilation. “Adequate ventilation” is 6 – 10 complete air changes in a room, per hour. If you are ventilating volatile solvent vapors, your ventilating fans need spark-proof shielding around the electric motor to lessen the chance of an explosion. “Explosion-proof” motors, lighting, and other products (capable of containing an explosion) are labeled as such and are rated by international testing agencies such as Factory Mutual Research and Underwriters Laboratories.
  • Err on the side of caution and develop safe work habits. Toxic affects can be cumulative.
  • Before you begin to use new materials, research them for health hazards. Search the manufacturer’s website; they often provide invaluable information on their products. If you have further questions, call the manufacturer.
  • Don’t let children or impaired individuals who are unaware of the importance of safe handling and procedures use anything but “non-toxic” materials, and see my previous comment on “non-toxic”.
  • Store your materials out of children’s reach.
  • Do not eat, drink or smoke around the materials (keep your food and drink elsewhere) and wash up before you do (away from your materials).
  • Do not apply cosmetics around the materials.
  • If techniques require heating materials, do so in a properly ventilated area. Don’t rely on a kitchen exhaust fan to provide protection.
  • Never store any products in drinking cups, plates, serving bowls, etc. Accidental ingestion is all too common.
  • Make certain that any materials you use to decorate eating or drinking utensils or food storage items (plates, glasses, etc) are safe for food and used as the manufacturer intended. Follow their recommendations.
  • Keep the products off your skin and cover and protect cuts and open wounds.
  • Protect your eyes. Do not rub your eyes, nose, mouth, or skin with dirty hands.
  • Wear the correct gloves made for the materials you will handle. The wrong gloves may look oil or solvent proof but may only be water proof. Worse, gloves made for one solvent may be ineffective against another. Don’t assume that household cleaning gloves are impervious to the materials you use; use the correct glove. This will take a little research but is well worth the effort.
  • Keep the materials out of your mouth. Biting your brush handle or using your tongue to shape your brush to a fine point is foolhardy.
  • Maintain a clean area and clean up after use – this includes you and your materials. Treat your cleaning materials, rags etc, as hazardous waste.
  • Keep containers properly closed when not in use.
  • Many materials are flammable; do not use them near heaters, stove burners, open flames, etc. Do not store them in hot areas or at temperatures exceeding the label warnings. Avoid smoking around them.
  • Oil or solvent soaked rags may self-combust. Keep them in a fire-proof safety can and dispose of them properly.
  • Dispose of all materials properly; visit your city’s waste disposal website to learn how to throw out hazardous materials. Many cities have free disposal of such materials. As of this writing the city of Gilbert, AZ household hazardous materials disposal site is http://www.ci.gilbert.az.us/pw/hhw.cfm. The Chandler, AZ corresponding site is http://www.chandleraz.gov/default.aspx?pageid=235.
  • Keep the products in their original containers so they will remain properly labeled. If you must use a different container then it should be made of the correct material (including the cap and seal), impervious to the contents, and properly and permanently labeled. Be aware that some solvents may make a label unreadable.
  • Materials that have exceeded their expiration date may become chemically altered and should be considered unsafe and disposed of accordingly. Their suitability for durable artwork may also have been affected.
  • Use all recommended safety and protection equipment and keep it clean. Leaving a dust mask in a dusty area and then using it defeats the purpose.
  • Dust masks must fit properly and be suitable for the materials being used. The same precautions apply to safety masks and respirators. There are wide varieties of each type on the market; some digging will be necessary. Time use limitations may apply for any of these products.
  • Don’t sweep materials and don’t use a vacuum cleaner without a properly maintained HEPA filter. Inexpensive vacuum cleaners without proper filtering will redistribute minute hazardous particles into the air. Clean up your materials per the manufacturer’s recommendation, which may discourage vacuuming.
  • Dry materials such as powders or pigments and wet materials such as solvents or liquids (spray cans, airbrush materials) may require special handling or equipment such as filtered exhaust booths with negative pressure, sealed boxes, etc. Both wet and dry materials are often easy airborne.
  • At the minimum, keep the draft directed away from yourself and others when spraying and do so in a well ventilated area or outdoors.
  • Sanding materials may generate toxic dust.
  • Some sites recommend the use of cat litter to absorb solvents and oils. In regards to cooking oil, other sites state “Avoid scented or disinfectant types of kitty litter as they can react with the oil and cause a fire.” It seems logical to apply this cautionary note to other solvents and oils as well.
  • Be aware that your actions affect more than just you; consider your environment and those living with you and around you.

Early artists were unaware of the hazards of many of the materials they used, but information on the topic is readily available today. While the long term improper use of your materials could have serious mental and physical health consequences, with proper safety precautions, awareness and common sense, these potential hazards can be mitigated if not avoided completely.

A few items bear repeating: Read the label. Learn what it means. Learn what should be on the label. Choose safe materials. Use proper techniques, handling, safety gear and safety precautions. Keep you and your area clean. Use proper cleanup and disposal methods.

Join an association devoted to your art or craft. The contacts made, knowledge gained, and the doors that open can be invaluable. Experience and enjoy your creativity safely!

Disclaimer: This article concerns itself with the common sense safety aspects of art materials and art safety in general. The author is not a qualified health practitioner, chemist or environmental expert, nor does the author claim to have expertise in art materials safety, materials handling, techniques, disposal or other similar topics. The intent of this article is merely to raise individual awareness of some of the issues involved and to encourage the reader to take steps to learn more about the factors involved with the hazards of artist’s materials. Use qualified information sources as the basis for your decision making. Links to specific products or websites are not an endorsement of any type. The author may change the contents of this document at any time, either in whole or in part.

Credits: The author wishes to express his appreciation to P. Kevin Sysak, PhD Organic Chemistry, Stanford University, Adjunct Professor of Chemistry at Central Arizona College, former Assistant Professor at UCLA, a friend and colleague with manufacturing safety training and experience, and also to "Mark D. Gottsegen, Co-Director of AMIEN and Materials Research Director at the Intermuseum Conservation Association, and past Chair of ASTM D01.57 on Artists' Materials."Mark D. Gottsegen, Co-Director of AMIEN and Materials Research Director at the Intermuseum Conservation Association, and past Chair of ASTM D01.57 on Artists' Materials, for their kind critique and suggested improvements to this work. Their helpfulness is sincerely appreciated.

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