The Perils of Painting

Artists have become increasingly aware that some materials they use are toxic. But educators and doctors warn that much more needs to be done.

As an art student at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1960s, Monona Rossol took a sculpture class where she and other students repeatedly melted pipe lead in a poorly ventilated studio. After class, “I would only get as far as the library before I had to vomit,” she recalls. “Back then, I only knew that I was very ill. I didn’t know that I was paying tuition to get acute lead poisoning.”

Rossol, now president of Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety, a nonprofit corporation founded in 1987 that provides free information on arts-related health and safety matters, concedes that times have changed since her university days. “In the late ’60s and early ’70s art-making and risk-taking were closely associated. Today, students are more concerned than ever about their health,” she says.

Although Rossol used pipe lead she bought from junk shops, many materials sold in art-supply stores also contain toxic ingredients. These include metals, like lead and cadmium found in pigments and pottery glazes; solvents used in paint, paint thinners, and paint removers; and dusts like asbestos, found in clays. The types of illnesses and disorders that have been linked with repeated use of toxic art materials include lead poisoning, cancer, kidney and nerve damage, and such reproductive consequences as miscarriages and birth defects. With growing concern about health and safety, Congress, in 1988, passed the Labeling of Hazardous Art Materials Act. That legislation, which went into effect in 1990, requires art-supply manufacturers to label their products with warnings about toxic ingredients and precautions to take when using them.

Now that there are industry regulations, are artists safer than they were ten years ago? To learn where arts safety stands today, ARTnewsspoke to those affected: artists, art schools, arts organizations, art-supply manufacturers, and physicians addressing arts-related occupational illnesses. All agreed that more needs to be done in terms of educating artists about safety. According to art-hazard authorities, the labeling act hardly signifies a sea change in the art world.

“The labeling act is only a beginning. Schools have a long way to go; and artists go to doctors with problems and don’t think to tell them what they’re working with,” says Merle Spandorfer, author of Making Art Safely, a book with information on alternative methods and materials for drawing, painting, printmaking, graphic design, and photography. “If people today get up and go jogging, then they have to think about the art materials they use as part of their lifestyle,” she says. “The artists of the past were disheveled and had paint all over them. The artists of the future have clean studios and wear gloves, if they’re educated.”

For years, Spandorfer, a printmaker, painter, and photographer, used oil-based techniques, chemicals like ammonium dichromate, and pigments with cadmium. Until she contracted breast cancer in the mid-1980s, she “had no idea” that her art materials fell under the category of suspected carcinogens. Today, Spandorfer uses only water-based solvents and works with vinyl gloves. “I’ve probably had more [professional] success since switching to all water-based systems,” she says in response to a query as to whether health concerns inevitably lead to artistic compromises. “My health is the most important thing,” she adds.

“There’s not a huge increase in manufacturers trying to come out with more nontoxic alternatives, but I’m seeing some increase,” says Debbie Gustafson, associate director of the Art & Creative Materials Institute, a nonprofit association of art-supply manufacturers dedicated to producing nontoxic alternatives. “I do think that manufacturers are trying to be more in tune with people’s concerns; also about things that require special handling, as opposed to something just nontoxic,” says Gustafson. The institute, founded in 1940, has certified more than 60,000 formulations—about 95 percent of them, according to Gustafson, are nontoxic. Products are accordingly labeled with certification seals.

Still others feel that the labeling act’s criteria for toxicity are not stringent enough. Rossol, for one, says that the testing methods are inadequate, and that the language on the labels is misleading. “There are incorrect tests used to measure toxicity, and people then assume things are safe when they’re not,” she says.

Last year, for example, two families brought lawsuits against several art-supply manufacturers for producing glazes that contained harmful ingredients. The mothers were artists, pregnant at the time, and using glazes they claimed caused damage to their unborn children. (The families settled out of court, one for approximately $500,000, the other for about $965,000.) Experts in these cases determined that faulty acid-solubility tests had been used to determine the levels of lead in the glazes. These can be labeled “lead free” if they do not release more than.06 percent of lead—the amount that reportedly caused brain damage in the children of the families who sued. “These tests are still being used to evaluate paint,” adds Rossol. “All you can do is use the least toxic stuff and treat it as toxic.”

Others, like Jack Snyder, a toxicologist, think that toxic art materials on the market remain far less of a danger than “the continued apathy of universities and art schools. It’s not that there’s an unwillingness to upgrade health and safety standards, it’s simply not a priority,” he says. “It’s these schools of art that should be impressing these issues on students, even if only to say what’s safe and what’s not.”

Michael McCann, a chemist and one of the leading pioneers in the field of art hazards, has a more optimistic outlook. The author of Artist Beware and numerous articles on art dangers, McCann can point to many examples of laxity and indifference in art schools, but he also sees a significant shift in attitude—be it from students suing schools for negligence or from faculty and administration who have developed a personal interest in safety. Having conducted over 300 on-site inspections of art schools across the country, he believes there have been some major changes in making health and safety a requirement.

McCann lauds the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, which currently accredits 210 art schools, for adding a statement on safety to its handbook of certification standards. “We don’t spell it out, but there’s a general statement about safety,” says David Bading, editor of the association’s publications. Bading acknowledges criticism that art schools don’t make safety a priority, but insists that there is a greater awareness now of art hazards.

Rossol cites the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for making strides toward improving health and safety. This year, the school made it mandatory for new students and faculty to undergo Hazard Communication training, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration Standard that requires employers to provide training for employees who may be exposed to hazardous chemicals in the workplace.

At the University of Central Arkansas, the art department recently appointed a full-time studio technician whose primary concerns are health and safety. Meanwhile, students who take the course “Portfolio II” have to write reports assessing the safety of the school’s art studios. And in the past ten years, the school has spent some $12,000 to redesign its ventilation system within the art department and disposed of a slew of toxic materials, particularly those used in ceramics and printmaking classes. “Our chief printmaker spends a tremendous amount of time on the Internet finding alternatives to toxic materials,” says Ken Burchett, the chair of the university’s art department.

At the Kansas City Art Institute, the administration plans to spend “hundreds of thousands” of dollars ren
ovating its campus and upgrading its electrical and ventilation systems. “I think a lot of campuses, including our own, have buildings designed in the late ’60s and early ’70s that are in need of upgrading,” says Kathleen Collins, president of the Kansas City Art Institute.

Collins recalls the days when she studied photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the early 1970s, “when there was a meager awareness about the dangers of the use of chemicals.” When she became a photography teacher, she one day found herself becoming incredibly sleepy. “Every day, I would feel ill, and couldn’t understand until someone pointed out that there was formaldehyde in the room,” she recalls. “Today, we know so much more about the effects of certain things.”

Snyder agrees. “What’s interesting is that artists now do reading and education on their own, and they often have more information than the physician.”

A former occupational health practitioner, Snyder confirms McCann’s observation that there appears to be increasing knowledge and resources for the medical treatment of artists suffering from occupational illnesses. But “there is still a substantial part of the clinical community that is not particularly experienced in taking occupational work history,” he says. “Occupational medicine also remains an area where there are few certified practitioners. We don’t attract physicians to a specialty when there’s not much financial support for it.”

At Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City—which treats some 4,000 patients annually in its occupational health clinic—“there’s been some increased recognition” of art-related illness, says Jacqueline Moline, a doctor and the director of the Occupational Medicine Residency Program at Mount Sinai. “But I think that comes more from the artists who realize that the materials they use may be hazardous than from the medical community.”

For Snyder, future advances depend on whether art educators and physicians join forces and “make an impression on young artists. That’s where the rubber meets the road,” he says. “Young artists need to be educated to realize that their bodies are not infallible.”

Put simply, education saved Spandorfer’s life. “When I got breast cancer, I told myself that if I got well, I would make it my mission to educate myself and other artists as to what they were using,” she says. “I don’t want to stop anyone from doing something they want to do but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that there are intelligent ways of working.”

Susan Josephs is a writer living in New York City.

For information on arts-related health and safety, see:
Artist Beware(The Lyons Press, 1993) by Michael McCann and Making Art Safely (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1997) by Merle Spandorfer

Or contact one of these organizations:
Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety
Call 212-777-0062, or visit their Web-site at www.caseweb.com/acts/index.html.

Art & Creative Materials Institute
For a list of certified nontoxic products, call 781-293-4100, or visit their Web-site at www.creative-industries.com/acmi/

National Association of Schools of Art and Design
For a list of accredited schools, call 703-437-0700, or visit their Web-site at www.arts-accredit.org/nasad/scripts/institute.cfm.

Copyright 2018, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. 110 Greene Street, 2nd Fl., New York, N.Y. 10012. All rights reserved.

  • Issues