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Artists Beware

Is Your Art Killing You, Your Family, Your Pets?

Artist Beware: The Hazards in Working with All Art and Craft Materials and the Precautions Every Artist and Craftsperson Should Take by Michael McCann

“Is your art killing you?" It's a simple, unexpected question and it's the title of the first chapter. This chapter and this book invites artists to consider the safety and possible health risks of materials used to express art forms.

Over the past few years I’ve met many artists who were greatly surprised to learn in workshops about the hazardous chemicals present in their art supplies. Each art form presents risks, and some sufficiently high enough to present serious long-term (chronic) health risks. These same artists would somewhat angrily express their wishes to have known this many years ago.

A highly respected expert in the field of occupational health, as well as an author, doctor, and certified industrial hygienist, Michael McCann, helps lead the efforts for changing attitudes that assume art materials are safe. Some are innocuous, especially with recent changes in elementary school supplies, but many remain unrestricted and very similar to industrial chemicals. It's part of the nature of art, trying new, non-traditional media to express a feeling. That's part of the problem.

Artist Beware: The Hazards in Working with All Art and Craft Materials and the Precautions Every Artist and Craftsperson Should Take is an absolute must for any artist. This book is essential knowledge. It is full of unbiased facts based upon experience and research that extends far beyond lead and asbestos. It lists exposure limits of chemicals, hazards associated with computer art, and more. It can help avoid serious complications for yourself, your family (especially your children if your studio is at home), your pets, and believe it or not, your unborn or not-yet-conceived children.

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The question (“Is your art killing you?”) is not stated to generate panic; rather it’s designed to encourage thoughtful and informed approaches to selecting and using art materials.

Have you ever heard, “To be a potter, you must live and breathe the clay?” Or have you heard “You need to get close to your materials?” These are statements I’ve heard repeatedly over the years. They are usually followed with “how else are you going to understand its abilities, its properties?” Just imagine living with asbestos, lead white, cadmium, and manganese driers. Breath deep!

Regarding clay, it has a high inhalation toxicity rating. “Specific hazards: Skin contact with wet clay may cause skin drying and irritation. Chronic inhalation can cause silicosis, a disease involving severe lung scarring. See also Silica." This form of silicosis is often referred to as “potter’s rot,” a condition that occurs after many years of exposure. I recently visited a ceramic’s studio and was surprised by the prevailing attitude of the artists and their general lack of concern for the concentration of airborne dust and lack of ventilation.

Yet many risks are associated with other art forms. While the dose makes the poison, the doses tend to be relatively uncontrolled and therefore, present high risks for the artist and family members if the studio is also in the house. Solvents, fumes, dusts, heavy metals, direct contact with metal compounds can frequently occur and often the health effects do not appear for many years.

Artist Beware is an excellent reference book with two sections and 591 pages. Read Part One first! The information helps you understand Part Two; and regarding Part Two, read the chapters applicable to your art form. The table of contents quickly guides you while the index is comprehensive. When finished reading the book, put it on a readily accessible shelf in your studio along with other safety information.

Part One:

Chapter One and the following ten chapters offer a wealth of resources. I’m providing a very brief summary of each chapter in Part One, but this only barely identifies the content and suggestions contained in these critical eleven chapters.

Who Protects Artists (Governmental agencies in Canada and United States, Government regulations, OSHA, and Labeling laws are all identified, including contact information. Included is a comprehensive state-by-state list of Occupational and Environmental Clinics.)

How Art Materials Can Hurt You (How exposures happen, effects of repeated exposures and exposures under varying conditions. What are the interactions of your medicines and your art materials? What do you know about reproductive toxicants for men or women, developmental toxicants, and conditions prior to conception?)

Which Art Materials Can Hurt You: Gases, Liquids, Dusts and Fumes (Terms are identified and explained along with some very specific hazards, flash points, boiling points, and relative toxicity ratings where appropriate.)

Safety in the Studio (How to set up a safe studio and how can you learn about your art materials using material safety data sheets. What exactly is a MSDS?)

Ventilation of Your Studio (Simple formulas are provided for determining your room volume, your ventilation needs, and suggestions are offered to improve ventilation along with advantages and disadvantages of various systems).

Further chapters include: Using Flammable and Toxic Art Materials Safely, Personal Protective Equipment, Physical Hazards, and In Case of Illness or Injury.

Part of what I do professionally is help schools and educators find ways to improve the environmental health of their schools. An overlooked area has been the art classroom. Generally the concern in schools has been for the chemistry and science labs, maintenance storage and materials, and pest management, but it has rarely been for art supplies and practices. While we find controls improved in elementary schools because of the Labeling of Hazardous Art Materials Act of 1988, high school and college studios are frequently overlooked and uncontrolled.

Part Two, What Are the Arts of Concern?

Individual chapters include painting, printmaking, drawing, ceramics, photography, sculpture, but also metalworking, jewelry, textile arts, glass arts, children and art materials, and many others. Each chapter describes the risks, identifies the common practices, and hazards. Within each chapter, ceramics for example, the author carefully lists some of the hazards and precautions. The chapter on children’s art materials needs to be read by parents and art teachers.

Children are at higher risks to all chemicals, not just those in art materials, because of their quickly developing bodies and because their body tissues metabolize and assimilate the toxic materials faster than adults. Learn how to read mandatory art material labels found on traditional art supplies used by children. However, prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals creates high health risks for adults as well as children.

The author lists some common types of children’s art materials along with precautions, recommended rules, and hazards. For example, always keep food out of the art area. Ceramic and clay dust (from dry clay) and pigments can persist on tabletops, even after your cleaning efforts. These can be picked up and consumed with food.

Casting in plaster hazards include contact with benzene, which is used in mold release. This is moderately toxic to the skin though touch and lungs through inhalation, but highly toxic by ingestion. (High toxicity and low dose can create a high risk.) Not all hazards are chemical; some are physical while some are from burns caused by highly flammable materials. “Making plaster casts of hands, legs, and other body parts can be very hazardous due to the heat released during the setting process. Many children and adults have been severely burned doing this.” Precautions might be as simple as wearing gloves and goggles (personal protective equipment) and substituting plaster body parts with plaster-impregnated bandage.

My Bottomline

What family members or friends in your life are full-time artists, or even long-time hobbyists? Is there someone near and dear to you teaching art in school or considering a career in art?

I have a brother who excels in painting motorcycle helmets. It's his second job and he works on it every night possible. He uses an airbrush and has a special room but often the pigments and solvents used are hazardous. The conditions probably won’t show up today, but in another 10 years he might have serious health-related problems. The spray mist that remains suspended in the air day after day probably contains toxic pigments with high contents of lead or zinc chromate. I should ask him about his frequent headaches and his occasional blurred vision. He complains about halos around lights—perhaps his painting is injuring him and the vision problem is not caused by his contact lenses. He need not give up his art, but I've learned that some simple modifications could improve his improve his long-term health.

Artist Beware costs less than $20 and is worth much more. I consider this an extremely well done handbook that needs to be in the studio of every single artist, it might save a few lives. Buy it for yourself, and the artists you know--your sibling, spouse, or child. Buy it for your children’s art teacher and bookmark the children and art chapter. Let yourself feel like you just improved their health.

Originally published on Epinions at © pestyside, 2014