‘A False Sense of Security’

Even as artists embrace environmental practices, they ignore or remain uninformed about the toxic materials in their own studios.

Hazardous art materials requiring special disposal are stored in bins in a university ceramics studio.

Hazardous art materials requiring special disposal are stored in bins in a university ceramics studio.


Cancer, heart attack, lead poisoning, and emphysema. Diseases of the eyes, liver, kidneys, and nervous system. Is there no end to the health problems confronted by artists who work with hazardous materials? Maybe not, but rising concern about risky aspects of art making has brought safer products and practices to studios, workshops, and classrooms in an effort to prevent illness and injury.

“We are making inroads, but it’s slow,” says Dr. David Hinkamp, a specialist in occupational and preventive medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health. With colleague Dr. Katherine Duvall, Hinkamp runs the school’s Health in the Arts Program, founded in 1999 “to diagnose, treat and prevent arts-related disorders among people working in all aspects of the arts.”

Focusing on education, the program offers an online library, including articles about how to install proper ventilation systems, interpret warning labels on art materials, and understand the perils of solvents and oil paints. Hinkamp and his colleagues also give lectures on art safety, evaluate workplaces, conduct research, and provide medical services. Educating physicians about hazards in the arts is a goal as well, he says, emphasizing a need for collaborative efforts to improve health and safety.

“I think there is a growing awareness of problems and a growing demand for information,” Hinkamp says. “But hazards in the art world often aren’t taken very seriously. It’s hard to see artists as people engaged in a dangerous field.” And the “show-must-go-on syndrome” doesn’t help, he says. “For every one of the arts, there is a deadline: the show. People will work as hard as necessary to get ready for the show. That often means disregarding important safety issues and sometimes even disregarding their own symptoms.”

Just how much safer the art world has become in the last two or three decades is a matter of debate. New challenges arise even as old problems are reduced or resolved. But laws regulating the labeling, use, and disposal of hazardous art materials have spurred reforms. And safety information is more readily available these days to artists, teachers, and conservators.

Books such as Artist Beware by Michael McCann, The Artist’s Complete Health and Safety Guide by Monona Rossol, and Making Art Safely by Merle Spandorfer detail problems and precautions. The Art Materials Information and Education Network, at amien.org, administered by artist Mark Gottsegen with an advisory board of arts professionals, defines itself as “the only unbiased source of information about art materials on the Internet.” Dozens of Web sites offer additional guidance and promote green products, though it can be difficult to distinguish facts from commercially motivated claims.

The environmental movement has raised consciousness about the dangers of making art, says McCann, a chemist and art-safety pioneer. “People have become aware of all kinds of hazards, and that has carried over to those using art materials, in particular the younger generation.” Artists are more likely today than in the past to understand that the way they use and dispose of art materials may affect their neighbors, he says. “It isn’t just a personal thing, but a concern for the effect elsewhere.”

Still, it often takes laws to bring change. A frequently cited example is the Labeling of Hazardous Art Materials Act (LHAMA), passed by Congress in 1988 and put into effect in 1990.

“Before that,” McCann says, “the only labeling required was for immediate hazards, not long-term effects.” Although the law does not require manufacturers to list the ingredients in their products—a limitation that’s often criticized—increased scrutiny of labels has led to safer versions of materials that can cause problems through contact, inhalation, or ingestion. Rubber cement, for example, “used to be made mostly of n-hexane, a solvent that is very volatile and can cause peripheral nerve damage,” says McCann. “When the suppliers had to apply labeling about nerve damage, most of them replaced n-hexane with heptane, which takes a little longer to evaporate but doesn’t have the same problems.”

But Rossol, an industrial hygienist, chemist, and artist who founded Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to providing health and safety services to the arts, contends that the labeling law actually has had a negative impact. “On the plus side,” she says, “known carcinogens are now reported on the labels of art materials. On the minus side, LHAMA does not address untested chemicals. There are over 100,000 chemicals used in commerce and only about 900 have been studied worldwide for their cancer effects. And LHAMA does not prohibit manufacturers from labeling untested chemicals as nontoxic.”

Although the dangers of inorganic pigments made from metals such as lead, cadmium, cobalt, chromium, arsenic, and mercury are well documented, few organic pigments—derived from natural sources or synthesized from organic chemicals—have been tested for causing cancer or other long-term problems, Rossol says. “Many of these pigments are in chemical classes in which all members are suspected to cause cancer. But if an individual pigment in a cancer-suspect class has not been tested, the manufacturer can, and usually does, label it nontoxic. This practice gives people a false sense of security and does not address the real problem, the fact that we don’t know squat about most of the chemicals we use.”

The marketplace reflects a variety of approaches to safety concerns. Golden Artist Colors, at goldenpaints.com, a 30-year-old firm in New Berlin, New York, produces a broad line of water-based acrylic-polymer paints and makes no “nontoxic” claims about untested chemicals. The Earth Pigments Company, at earthpigments.com, in Cortaro, Arizona, advertises “non-toxic pigments, binders and mediums” made from natural elements. Glob, at globiton.com, in Berkeley, California, offers “botanically crafted color paints made from fruits, vegetables, flowers, and spices.”

Blick Art Materials, at dickblick.com, a 100-year-old company with corporate offices in Highland Park, Illinois, a distribution center in Galesburg, Illinois, and stores in 16 states, has a wide range of products, including the metal-bearing pigments that produce the vibrant reds and deep blues some artists prefer. The firm also woos environmentally concerned artists with a Web site stating its “commitment to being green” and offering a lengthy list of ecofriendly products and a guide called “12 Ways Artists Can ‘Go Greener.'”

Rossol sees “a general improvement in the safety of materials being used,” but notes there are “holdouts and even some backsliders” among artists who ignore or are uninformed about potential dangers. “Many photographic artists have switched from toxic chemicals to digital methods that only expose them to a small amount of ozone and particulate from laser printers,” she says, but others continue to use chemically based methods, including a daguerreotype process that produces toxic mercury vapors.

“Although many printmakers have ceased using acids for etching and switched to ferric chloride, others still use highly hazardous Dutch mordant and nitric-acid etches,” Rossol says. Lead-free solder is readily available, but not all metalworkers use it. And even though the horrors of lead poisoning are well known, there is a resurgence in the use of lead in white paints and painting grounds, she says.

Some artists deeply regret the loss of favorite materials, despite potential dangers, and contend that regulations are overly aggressive, if not unnecessary.

“Intelligence and common sense and good practices is the way to go,” says Adrian Saxe, a Los Angeles-based ceramist known for exploiting decorative-art traditions in witty, outrageously seductive works. “Banning things and messing around with restrictions is not in the service of art,” he says. “There are very toxic materials in ceramics. Lead is definitely a problem if you don’t handle it properly. But the solution has been to ban everything that’s a problem. As a result, a 4,000-year history of glaze components has been gutted.”

Jim Morphesis, a painter of expressionistic figurative works, also based in Los Angeles, continues to use oils in his signature palette, including cadmium reds, although he knows chronic exposure to cadmium can lead to kidney damage and other problems. “I am concerned with toxic materials,” he says. “But most of the time, what I feel I need to do to have a successful painting takes precedence over health. I compromise when I can.”

Conservators are also involved in efforts to avoid using toxic materials and harmful methods. “Some restrictions have been imposed on us,” says sculpture conservator Rosa Lowinger, who has studios in Los Angeles and Miami, “particularly if you work on outdoor sculpture and especially in California, where the permissible VOC”—volatile organic compounds—”levels are lower. We are limited in the kinds of paints and other materials we can use. For years now we haven’t been able to spray some of the lacquers commonly used on outdoor sculpture.”

In fact, Lowinger has all but given up spraying, because so much potentially dangerous material goes into the air. “I look for paint systems that self-level,” she says, “so you can brush or roll them instead of spraying them.” She has also stopped using aromatic hydrocarbons such as xylene and toluene. “They are very good solvents for dissolving waxes and resins, but they are very toxic,” she says. “There are ways of combining other things to give you an approximation of that solubility parameter.”

Art schools and art departments got a wake-up call about safety in 1999, when the Environmental Protection Agency launched an initiative requiring studio classrooms and labs in colleges and universities to meet industry standards for environmental health and safety. To avoid being fined for unsafe use of hazardous materials or improper waste disposal, many schools had to purchase new equipment, improve ventilation, revamp facilities, and hire environmental health and safety (EHS) managers.

“I think the EPA program was successful largely because it struck the one place where schools don’t want to be struck: the pocketbook,” says Duane Slick, professor of painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, who helped to implement a campus-wide safety program with EHS manager Alan Cantara.

Health and safety can be a tough sell at art schools that pride themselves on fostering free expression and experimentation. At RISD, Cantara oversees a department intended to demonstrate that creative processes and environment stewardship are not mutually exclusive. A waste-management program called ARTS gets its name from its goals. The “A” stands for “active commitment to compliance and continuous improvement”; “R” for “reduction of pollution through waste minimization, lowered materials consumption, and energy conservation”; “T” for “training and educating faculty, students, and staff about the environmental considerations of their activities”; and “S” for “stewardship in enhancing the quality of life for our employees, faculty, students, and neighboring community.”

Over time, Cantara says, students have come to accept safe practices, such as proper waste disposal, as the way things are done. “I think the kids really get it,” he says.

The College Art Association, a New York-based organization with a membership of 14,000 arts professionals and 2,000 institutions, occasionally addresses health and safety issues in conferences and publications. Its July 2004 newsletter, largely devoted to the subject, issued a call to “individual artists to learn about safe practices, to use nontoxic materials wherever possible, and to set up safe, environmentally responsible studios.” College and university art programs were challenged to “develop and maintain safe studios and proper Environmental Management Systems,” and administrators and faculty were asked to “make the teaching of safe practices a formal part of every introductory art curriculum.”

CAA’s 99th annual conference, to be held in New York in February, will include the session “Health and Safety in the Artist’s Studio.” Organized by Gottsegen and Brian Bishop, a painter who teaches at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, the program will be part of ARTspace, a sort of conference within the larger conference devoted to issues of special interest to artists and open to the public free of charge.

On many college campuses, concern about environmental sustainability has become a much hotter topic than safety. A case in point is the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts in Los Angeles, at sustainablepractice.org, founded in early 2008 by Ian Garrett, professor at and alumnus of the California Institute of the Arts, and Miranda Wright, also a CalArts graduate. The multidisciplinary center aims to provide “a network of resources to arts organizations, which enables them to be ecologically and economically sustainable while maintaining artistic excellence,” according to the mission statement. In partnership with like-minded organizations, the center offers an online resource guide and programs intended to help artists “make the best choices for their sustainability.”

The discussion about health and safety in the arts may heat up even more with the publication of Rossol’s new book, Pick Your Poison: How Your Mad Dash to Chemical Utopia is Making Lab Rats of Us All, due in March from John Wiley & Sons.

“It’s about chemicals in everyday products that are killing us—and what the government is not doing about it,” Rossol says. “It’s about ecofriendly and green products that may be good for the environment, but not for you. I trace America’s love affair with chemicals from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to today, showing how much worse the problem has gotten in the last decades. I discuss why scientists are finally linking our increased rates for cancer, autism, obesity, and asthma to chemical exposure, a premise I’ve held for years. My purpose is not to frighten but to inform. Then you can make wiser choices at the checkout line and at the art store.”

Suzanne Muchnic, former art writer for the Los Angeles Times, writes for many publications.

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