Notebook, 1993-



Toxicity of Pigments

Artists' pigments should be handled with care, as some of them are poisonous and can have serious effects on the health of the painter. Many artists may feel that they are exposed to toxic painting pigments in such small quantities that no danger to their health is likely. However, it is important to understand that repeated small doses of hazardous materials may prove to have a cumulative effect on the painter's health that may become evident at a later date. The body may be able to rid itself of the poison but it may take a long time to do so. If toxic material is absorbed at a faster rate than it can be excreted, the accumulation may cause serious illness. Reactions to a toxic material may vary according to the artist's age, size, or physical condition. Other factors, such as the use of [p. 28] tobacco or alcohol, also may affect the level of the painter's response to some toxic exposures.

Some of the solvents that artists use are health hazards. These liquids are used to thin paints and varnishes, to clean brushes, and to remove paint from the skin or clothing. Health problems related to solvents are discussed more specifically in Thinners and Solvents.

Pigments containing lead or arsenic have long been recognized as being dangerous. This group includes flake white or Cremnitz white [made of lead carbonate], Naples yellow [when made of lead antimoniate pigment], the chrome yellows [made of lead chromate], chrome green [made of mixtures containing lead chromate], cobalt violet [when it contains cobalt arsenate] and greens such as Schweinfurt green, emerald green, Paul Veronese green or Paris green [when made of arsenic compounds such as copper acetoarsenite]. Since 1975 many reports have called attention to the possible dangerous effects of pigments containing cadmium, chromium, manganese, and mercury. These colors include the cadmium reds, cadmium yellows, cadmium orange, viridian and chrome oxide opaque, manganese blue, manganese violet, burnt and raw umber, and vermilion [mercuric sulfide].

Pigments can enter the painter's body if they get into the artist's mouth, if they penetrate the skin through cuts and scratches, or if the painter inhales them. If artists frequently absorb pigments by any of these methods, they may develop various levels of health problems. [pp. 28-29]

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These warnings regarding the toxicity of some painting materials are not intended to prevent the artist from developing painting effects that are important to pictorial expression. If painters work with an awareness of the hazards of their materials, they can sometimes substitute less dangerous materials for those that are very toxic, or when substitution is not feasible, they can avoid careless or untidy handling of the material and so protect their health while using toxic, but otherwise advantageous, pigments. [p. 31]

Pigments Absorbed by Inhalation
Painters cannot inhale pigments when the colors are in the form of pastes such as prepared oil colors or acrylic colors. However, if painters make their own paints, they combine the powdered pigments with an oil or an adhesive. When they use the pigments in the form of dry powders, they should handle them with care so as to avoid raising a great deal of pigment dust. If a large amount of pigment is roughly dumped onto a slab or palette, a considerable amount of color can be observed hanging in the air as the artist works. Such unnecessary dispersion is dangerous, as it can cause the painter to inhale poisonous pigments. Artists working in fresco, egg tempera, and encaustic techniques, all requiring the handling of dry pigments, should be aware of the pigment hazards and should avoid raising the pigment dust unnecessarily during painting or cleanup.

Painters using pastels will find an accumulation of pigment dust on and around their easels in the painting area. Although the lead whites are excluded from pastel sticks, cadmium, chrome, and manganese colors can be found in some pastels. So artists should be careful to keep themselves and their studios as free of these pigment dusts as possible.

Some painters scrape dried sections of their paintings, using a knife, razor blade, or sandpaper to smooth down heavy strokes of hardened paint. Since the paint scrapings from such operations may contain poisonous pigments, artists should take care to keep the scraped particles out of their food, off their skin, and out of their lungs.

Painters who apply colors by means of spray cans or air compressor sprayers should be aware that the finely divided pigment in the sprays remaining in the air can be inhaled and that the spray can drift into food or dishes if these are kept in the studio.

When large amounts of pigment dusts are apt to be in the air, as, for example, during a long session of grinding colors, the painter should wear a respirator mask designed for protection against toxic dusts. The mask should be one that is approved by the U.S. Bureau of Mines or by the National Institute of Health and Safety [NIOSH] for protection against toxic fine-dust particles. Artists who apply color by using a spray can or a compressor sprayer should use a protective respirator mask as a precaution against breathing the sprayed pigment.

When zinc, lead, or cadmium metals are heated to high temperatures, such as those involved in welding processes, fumes may be released that can cause serious illnesses. Painters who work with any process that requires the burning of paint or pigments should be aware that constant inhalation of the fumes is dangerous, that they should work with adequate exhaust ventilation and that they should use a respirator designed to protect the wearer from poisonous metal fumes. [p. 30]

Pigments Absorbed by Mouth
Painters should keep food and its preparation separate from studio equipment and the painting process. If they eat or drink while they are working, they may get traces of paint from their hands or from their tools into their food or eating utensils. Similarly if they smoke while painting, they may carry paint into their mouths by way of the cigarettes. Artists should not put paint brushes into their mouths, as the brush handles may have paint on them. The painter's habit of shaping brush tips to fine points by licking them while painting in watercolor or tempera has often been cited as a very unhealthy practice. Artists who use dry pigments or pastels should be aware of the danger of carrying pigment dust from the work area into their food or cigarettes. Painters should not wash their paint brushes in kitchen sinks that are used for food preparation and dishwashing. Instead, artists should clean their equipment in utility sinks where pigments from brushes and tools cannot contaminate kitchen utensils or food. After the painting session, especially when they go to eat, painters should be careful to scrub all traces of paint from their hands and from their fingernails. [p. 29]

Pigments Absorbed through the Skin
As much as possible, painters should try to keep paint and pigments away from their skin. Undesirable pigments can be absorbed through breaks in the skin, and some can cause allergic responses or dermatitis [inflammation of the skin]. When artists have [p. 29] cuts or blisters on their hands and must handle colors, they should protect themselves, keeping the cuts bandaged, and if possible, they should wear disposable gloves such as those that are sold for laboratory work. These are inexpensive, made of plastic and can be thrown away after being used once. [pp. 29-30]

Hazards in Cleaning
When dust containing dry pigment is to be cleaned from areas of the studio or from studio furniture, the artist should be careful not to stir it into the air where it may be more generally distributed. Ordinary vacuum cleaners will suck in the finely divided pigment and may blow it out through the machine's exhaust, dispersing the pigment through the room. Sweeping with a dry broom tends to raise a large quantity of dust into the air. Sheets of brown paper placed on the work table and on the floor of the work area before the painting session can catch the waste pigment and then can be discarded. Cleanup of furniture with damp disposable paper towels or cloths will minimize the spreading of pigments. A damp cloth wrapped around a dry dust mop will remove pigment traces from the floor with less risk of dispersion than if a vacuum cleaner or a dry broom is employed. The painter should discard dust cloths, paper towels, and paper dropcloths quickly after they are used.

Clothing such as smocks, overalls, and aprons worn in the studio should be laundered separately from other clothing. Special care should be taken to avoid washing work clothes together with the clothes of small children. [p. 31]

[Kay, Reed. The Painter's Guide to Studio Methods and Materials. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1983.]



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