Book Reviews‎ > ‎Sustainability‎ > ‎

Artists Complete Health and Safety Guide

Exposure to Art or Exposure to Art Materials?

The Artist's Complete Health and Safety Guide by Monona Rossol

A statement recently overheard at an occupational health and visual arts conference: “I used acrylics in a polymer emulsion in a room with inadequate ventilation. I was painting a multi-wall mural that took over 90 hours to complete. Besides being exhausted, I developed pneumonia and a respiratory irritation that lasted more than three weeks. We later learned that it was the formaldehyde and ammonia combination I inhaled that irritated the tissues in my lungs.”

Many participants at that conference now know to avoid this combination of risks as do a growing number of artists attending similar conferences and workshops around the country. Yet, many still explore unusual combinations of traditional and non-traditional materials through non-traditional methods.

Monona Rossol, the author of The Artist’s Complete Health and Safety Guide, explains why she became involved in this area of health and safety. “The idea for this book can be traced back to the University of Wisconsin, where I earned a B.S. in chemistry. I was working and teaching in the chemistry department when I decided to enter the graduate art program. As I went back and forth between the chemistry and art schools, it occurred to me that many of the same acids and other chemicals were used in both places. As a research chemist, I defended myself against chemicals with goggles, gloves, fume hoods, and other safety equipment. My art colleagues and I, on the other hand, saw these same chemicals as art materials that were to be used lovingly and intimately. As I look back at our work practices now, I think we must have confused ‘exposure to art’ with ‘exposure to art materials.’

The gadget spec URL could not be found
Many years later Monona Rossol successfully informs artists of dangers associated with their professions. Using this book, a not-for-profit organization in New York, A.C.T.S. (Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety), and workshops, she has influenced artists both nationally and internationally. She is an industrial hygienist, chemist, artist, and president of A.C.T.S. and is a highly regarded author and consultant. While she recognizes recent changes in awareness levels of many artists, she also realizes many artists continue to endanger their health every day.

My professional area of focus has been shifting a little recently with emphasis on specialized areas of school health as opposed to general conditions. Chemistry teachers don’t always practice what they should, but they have the background to create safe learning environments. Art instructors and artists do not always have access to this information, nor are the resources present to help them realize their risks, thus the reason for the shift.

Two books caught my attention 

Many of the occupational health specialists that I’ve met have recommended the two as a package. I agree. Monona Rossol wrote one and Michael McCann wrote the other (Artist Beware). They complement each other in a variety of ways. The Artist's Complete Health and Safety Guide tends to introduce basic concepts and definitions, laws, health hazards, chemical and physical hazards, strategies for identifying hazardous materials, precautions and respiratory protection.

The book is divided into four parts, with two appendices and a list of tables and figures. The index is a comprehensive A to Z listing everything from abrasive blasting to zoonoses. “Zoonoses—diseases that can be transmitted from animals to man—may also afflict users of animal fibers. For example, inhalation of invisible anthrax spores from wool or hair harvested from diseased animal can cause a virulent, often fatal, infectious disease.

(Don’t panic and throw out your animal fibers, she offers safety guidelines for working with the fibers as well as recommendations for improving regulations that affect importing of these fibers.)

Parts and Appendices

This 405-page handbook contains technical information, but resources are provided that allow easy interpretation. It is the author’s goal to make this topic understandable and less intimidating.
  • Part One: The Regulated Art World 
  • Part Two: Artists’ Raw Materials 
  • Part Three: Precautions for Individual Media 
  • Part Four: The Next Generation 
  • Appendix A: Sources and Annotated Reference List 
  • Appendix B: Glossary 
  • List of Tables and Figures (34 tables) 
  • Figures: (14 figures) 

Pieces of the Parts

This practical, comprehensive hands-on book should serve as a valuable guide for all artists. In Part Two she explained that hazardous materials used in art tend to fall into five general groups: solvents; pigments and dyes; metals and their compounds; minerals, frits, and glass; and plastic. Each of these chapters described the material, the associated risks and toxicities, how they affect the body, and she listed usage suggestions. The content tends to be technical, but she thoroughly identified each in language most non-chemists can understand.

Cadmium, within the chapter of metals and metal compounds, is used in art in various ways. Local effects (the potential damage for skin, eyes, respiratory system upon contact) of cadmium include skin, eyes and respirator irritations, ulcerated nasal septum, loss of smell, yellowing of teeth, and pulmonary edema. (How yellow are your teeth?) Systemic effects (conditions that occur later after the contact) include lung, liver and kidney damage; cancer, male and female reproductive damage. These are the facts as she presents them, but each will vary depending upon variables (length of exposure, type of exposure, form of cadmium).

Chapter 17, Leather and Other Animal Products described the process of harvesting and tanning, the hazards associated with tanning chemicals, dyeing, cementing, cleaning and finishing, antique leather and taxidermy, and other animal products. She concluded each of these chapters in Part Three with Precautions or Rules.

Within Part Four is a table on Art Materials and Projects for Children and Other High-Risk Individuals. This is conceived around the knowledge that young children are at higher risks (their bodies are rapidly developing). The list includes materials that should not be used and substitutions are offered. Many of these are simple, common sense suggestions, but integration of these into classroom use can make a big difference in health and safety issues. Also found are guidelines for reproductive risks, estrogenic chemicals (chemicals that mimic the effects of female hormones), and exposure during pregnancy along with some commonsense suggestions.


In my opinion, the strength of Monona Rossol’s book is her practical and comprehensive approach to materials. While this is an excellent guide for artists, I especially see this as valuable for art instructors. For example, Chalks and Conte Crayons are pigments in binders and chalk (calcium carbonate), talc, barites (barium sulfate mineral), or other powdered inert minerals. ‘Dustless’ chalks and conte crayons can be used safely, because they contain binders, which prevent creation of respirable-sized dust particles (see page 24). If they are used in ways that create dust, however, it is possible for the dust to be inhaled into the upper portions of the lung, where it can cause irritation and then be ingested. *See also Pastels below)

Hopefully, by now, you have realized that this book contains far too much information for one simple review. This book sits in my office to be used as a quick reference for any art instructor needing quick answers. Each chapter is informative, concise, and vitally important. Monona Rossol’s book is an excellent source of practical advice for understanding the hazards of art’s chemical world. It should be on the shelf of all artists, but especially art instructors. Where the book stops, her organization continues and she makes it clear she is available to answer questions. Artists and teachers need to consider this book a valuable reference. Your health and safety training can begin with The Artist’s Complete Health and Safety Guide--it is complete.

To contact Monona Rossol or to learn more, visit A.C.T.S. (in New York)

See also my review of Monona Rossol's book,
The Health & Safety Guide for Film, TV & Theater
Originally published on Epinions at © pestyside, 2014