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The Hidden Life of Art Supplies

By Sara Zaske

Vincent van Gogh was a brilliant painter. He also went mad, cut off half his ear, and committed suicide at age 37. Historians may never know what caused his long illness, but some attribute it to the toxic materials he used. And art can still be a dangerous business. While professional artists and children face the most serious health risks, even adult dabblers should choose and use their tools wisely.

Under the 1988 Labeling of Hazardous Art Materials Act, all art supplies must carry a warning if they contain substances known to be chronic health hazards. (Properly labeled materials indicate that they "conform to ASTM D-4236.") But the system is not foolproof: Some health advocacy groups charge that the review and labeling process is compromised by industry influence. Another common set of labels, the AP (approved product) and CP (certified product) seals, are industry-issued and do not require product testing. With labeling at best incomplete, it’s important to do your own research and buy products with clearly listed ingredients.

Any art materials containing lead, a known hazard to the nervous system and brain, should be avoided, even though certain paints, pottery glazes, printmaking inks, and stained-glass materials are exempt from consumer lead laws. The Art & Creative Materials Institute, a manufacturers’ association, claims that lead is "essential to providing a high quality, safe glaze." It similarly justifies the use of lead in paints because they are "archival" and meant to last hundreds of years. The danger posed by lead, however, will last just as long.

Among the most hazardous of other ingredients are solvents, found in many pens, inks, and paints. Xylene, a petroleum byproduct used in some permanent markers, can cause dizziness or respiratory irritation, and, with repeated exposure, damage to the liver and kidneys. Some rubber cements contain hexane, which can cause nerve or skin damage from direct contact and headaches from inhalation. Any product containing solvents should be used in a well-ventilated area and discarded at a household-hazardous-waste collection point: If poured down the sink or storm drain, solvents can kill off helpful bacteria at water-treatment plants or harm aquatic life once they reach waterways.

What Next?
SAFER SUPPLIES So how do you create your masterpiece without creating a mini-Superfund site? Ditch the solvents by substituting water-based markers or grease pencils for permanent markers. Instead of rubber cement, stick to paste, glue sticks, or white glue. To eliminate the need for toxic solvents like turpentine, consider trying the new water-washable oil paints, or other water-based paints like acrylics instead of conventional oils. Although acrylics now have a color range on par with oils, they dry faster, so you may have to alter your painting style. But that’s a small price to pay for your health.

CLEAN UP Turpentine, which is used to thin and clean up oil-based paints, can damage the kidneys, central nervous system, and bladder. Fortunately, there are substitutes. To change the consistency of paint, try odorless mineral spirits, perhaps mixed with a dab of linseed oil. To clean your brushes and palettes, wash them first with vegetable or baby oil and then soap and hot water.

POTTERY WITHOUT PERIL Firing unglazed ceramics releases carbon monoxide and sulfur oxides, while metals in the glazes can produce other toxic fumes. Make sure your kiln is well ventilated, and choose lead-free glazes that are non- or low-toxic. Children should use only talc-free, pre-mixed clays (to avoid inhaling the dust), and paint finished pieces with acrylics instead of glazing.

More Information Pick up Artist Beware by Michael McCann or The Artist’s Complete Health and Safety Guide by Monona Rossol, who also heads Arts, Crafts, and Theater Safety. This nonprofit group can be reached at (212) 777-0062 or The Georgia Strait Alliance, a British Columbia–based environmental group, suggests "better" and "best" alternative art materials in its factsheet

"Solving the Solvent Problem" (available at For technical details on specific products, write to individual manufacturers and ask for a Material Safety Data Sheet.

Sara Zaske is a freelance writer and amateur painter living in Oakland, California.

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