Toxic Beauty

Recent series of Bob Genn's fabulous articles on pigments reminded me how many of those beautiful pigments that become part of our art, are very toxic. I remembered a list of controlled substances I've seen related to the electronics industry, where I noticed that the same toxic stuff appears in art and in the industry, but in art we seem to be much more relaxed about the potential health risks. I guess that we artists just love our job so much :-)

 Many art supplies manufacturers have web sites that talk about this, and every artist should read that, but in the real life, very few of us do. I guess that's OK, as long as we make sure that we use safe studio practices...which we always do...right? I think I do, but realistically, I know I could do better, so therefore, this article is meant to be a gentle reminder.

Just to clarify what I am talking about here, here are some of the "baddies" that I find on my palette: anthraquinone (blue), phthalocyanine (blue), formaldehyde (acrylic medium), pyrrolidone (red), cobalt (blue), zinc (white), carbon (black), titanium (black), cadmium (red, orange, yellow)...and much more.

Bad stuff is present in all types of paints - acrylics, oils, watercolors, pastels, etc. because the pigments themselves are made of it. Acrylic mediums and oil solvents contain an additional list of chemicals, so basically, all paints and mediums should be handled with due care.

The good news is that containers in which paint or medium are sold are clearly marked noting chemicals that it contains, and associated health hazards. The bad news is that I noticed that some chemicals that are listed as controlled substances in the industry, and not labeled as dangerous in paint, which makes me think that to be on a safe side, I might as well consider them all dangerous, and take equal care with them.

health warning on tubes of cadmium orange and nickel azo yellow

Another bad news is that many of those chemicals can (very) seriously affect health if they constantly accumulate, or pass through our body over long time period...and since artists hope never to stop painting, years of exposure to paint toxins add up over a lifetime. So it's best to minimize what get's in, as much as we can.

The ways chemicals get in are by inhalation, ingestion or absorption through skin - so:

1. Beware what chemicals are dangerous if not handled properly, or just assume that they all are
2. Beware which of our paints, mediums and solvents contain those chemicals, or just assume that they all do
3. Know how to prevent the bad stuff from getting into our body and environment:

Four simple rules for protecting artists from bad chemicals:

A. Don't eat paint - this means don't eat in the studio, clean hands thoroughly before eating, don't carry food in the same container with your art supplies, don't put brushes in your mouth

B. Don't inhale paint - this means vacuum, dust and wash studio surfaces and tools as often as possible, use rubber gloves when you do all that cleaning, if you have some other angel doing this for you, make them aware of the risks and safe ways to do it

C. Protect your skin - this means wash or protect hands from paint, wear clothes free of paint stains, replace paint rugs frequently. No, those photos of artist with smudged hands and faces wearing paint crusted overalls are NOT COOL!

D. Don't dump paint into environment - this means collect leftover paint and dispose of it according to your local community regulations, use Eco friendly cleaning substances, and don't introduce any other unnecessary chemicals in the studio.

I hope this one wasn't a snoozer!!! This is the only unavoidable risk of our profession, so let's be alert and at least minimize it!

There is an excellent European Chemicals Agency web site with lot of information about "chemicals in our life" here.