Beware of Hazardous Art Materials

By George Leposky

Gamblin Strives for Studio Safety

As a high-school student, I spent many hours in shop class making enamel jewelry - cufflinks, earrings, tieclips, etc. I would cut out pieces of copper sheeting, brush a sticky substance onto them, arrange colored powders and chips on top, then bake them in a kiln to melt the enamel and bond it to the copper.

My youthful exploits horrify Monona Rossol. An industrial hygienist and chemist who also holds a Master of Fine Arts degree, she has specialized for years in the hazards of art and theatrical materials.

"You were using lead frit enamels," she explains. "In addition, your opaque white enamels contained arsenic. Opaque yellow was cadmium. Purple was manganese. Some greens were chrome. The reds often contained cadmium. You may have even worked with some mercury compounds. Many of these substances still are used today in professional enamels.

"These are the same kinds of colors you see in stained glass. People grinding the edges of stained glass pieces in their basements are putting cute stuff in the house, plus they’re doing lead soldering.

"About 300 different pigments are used in art paints, and many of them are very toxic. Art materials are exempt from the consumer paint lead laws, and they routinely contain lead, cadmium, chromium, and cobalt."

Like Bangladesh

I also told Rossol about my son, Teddy, who recently earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Webster University in Webster Groves, Missouri. When he was a student there, he toured his parents through the art school, a sprawling complex of arcane technologies, clutter, dust, and weird odors.

"You might as well be in Bangladesh," Rossol grumps. "Most college and university art schools have a total lack of knowledge of the laws and regulations that apply to the work and to safety. They don’t know that housekeeping is an OSHA (U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulation. When administrators see what they need to spend for ventilation and safety equipment, their jaws drop. They don’t plan on that in the budget. They make the decisions, and they know even less than the artists about safety regulations."

I must talk with Teddy about what he knows. He specializes in print-making, and he told me about Dutch mordant, an acidic substance used to etch designs on copper plates - but he misstated the key ingredient. "It’s made from hydrochloric acid plus potassium chlorate," Rossol says. "Every printmaking department I’ve ever seen has a bottle, and hasn’t a clue that potassium chlorate mixed with any carbon source is a pyrotechnic. If you get dust in it, it’s a fireworks ingredient. It also does interesting things if it gets too hot. In a fire, it’s spectacular."

Evil Vapors

Teddy is aware that many of the cleanup solvents he uses - including kerosene, lacquer and paint thinners, and turpentine - are toxic stuff, but he needs more precise information. "Threshold limit value (TLV) is one of the things OSHA requires workers to know, but it isn’t happening in most art schools," Rossol says. TLV is an air-quality standard for toxic substances such as solvents. The smaller the TLV, the less is allowed in workplace air. The TLV is 50 for normal hexane (an ingredient in rubber cement) and for toluene, 100 for turpentine. Rossol recommends Gamsol, a solvent made of odorless mineral spirits, which has a TLV of 300. It’s made by Gamblin Artists Colors Co., a producer of environmentally safer materials for artists.

Rossol says artists employ toxic chemicals in industrial processes to create a product. "Ceramics is the same as if you were a brickmaker or tilemaker or working for Lenox China," she says. "You’re working with clays, and with glazes that contain heavy metals, sometimes including lead, and firing it in a kiln at over 2,000 F.

"Sculpture is really horrendous, involving all kinds of wood dust and stone dust, with the same problems as quarry workers and tombstone makers. With metal sculpture you’re in a foundry, casting molten metals and breathing the fumes they emit. Sand casting involves silica, and burning out wax produces a lot of toxic emissions. Most sculpture studios also do several kinds of welding, which involves high temperatures and various gases."

What To Do

If you are an artist or art teacher, here is what Rossol says you should do to guard against the hazards of your profession:

Learn about the materials. "If your art teacher is not showing you Material Safety Data Sheets (texts that describe hazardous products) and teaching you to read them, something is wrong with that teacher and that school," Rossol says.

Don’t do anything without the right equipment and ventilation.

Obtain proper training in the use of the equipment. Use of a respirator, for instance, should be preceded by a visit to a doctor to assure that you don’t suffer from a condition exacerbated by breathing stress. Then you need a professional fitting to be sure the device conforms to your facial structure, followed by training in how to use it, clean it, change cartridges, and store it.

Obtain retraining at least annually. "People forget," Rossol notes.

Remember to use the safety equipment whenever you work, even if you’re just puttering for a few minutes.

OSHA requires schools and corporate workplaces to institute a formal program to make sure all of this happens. "This is still a free country," Rossol says. "You’re allowed to kill yourself at home, but if you do it in a workplace, your administrator or employer can get cited or fined."

Unfortunately, OHSA’s requirements don’t extend to the artists’ cooperatives that have taken over old bakeries, shopping centers, and warehouses in many communities. "These often are dangerous places," Rossol says. " The blind are leading the blind, and most of these people don’t want to spend their limited resources on ventilation and safety equipment."

For More Information

Monona Rossol is president of Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety (ACTS), a non-profit organization. Its activities include OSHA compliance training, surveys, helping to plan new buildings for art schools and other arts-related venues, reviewing manuscripts for technical accuracy, and expert-witness testimony in lawsuits. ACTS is at 181 Thompson Street, # 23, New York NY 10012-2586, telephone 212-777-0062, e-mail.

Rossol also is safety director for United Scenic Artists, Local 829 of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, providing safety services for workers in the performing arts.

Gamblin Strives for Studio Safety

For two decades, landscape artist and paintmaker Robert Gamblin has pioneered in the creation of art materials that pose fewer risks to artists and theenvironment. Gamblin’s firm, Gamblin Artists Colors Co., produces oil paints, mediums, and solvents that greatly reduce toxic levels in art studios. These products are in use bynumber of important contemporary artists, including Chuck Close, Jim Dine, David Hockney, Wolf Kahn, Nathan Oliveira, and James Rosenquist.

Gamblin’s own factory in Portland, Oregon, is environmentally safe. He serves as chairman of the task force on physical properties of artists’ materials for the American Society of Testing and Materials, and he has advised numerous organization on removing turpentine-based mediums and solvents from the oil painting process and replacing them with his company’s brand of odorless mineral spirits, Gamsol.

"We’ve ‘de-turped’ the painting departments at the San Francisco Art Institute, the Minneapolis College of Art & Design, and Rhode Island School of Design, as well as the printmaking department of the College of Santa Fe," Gamblin says.

"We have used Gamsol for years and appreciate the much-improved air quality in the painting studios. All you smell is the drying linseed oil in the paints," says Dave Tangney, head of painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. "We are also committed to teaching young painters how to establish safe studio practices, so they can continue to paint in oils throughout their painting careers without health hazards.

Gamblin advises artists working in oils to use paints with no or very low toxicity that are free of arsenic, lead, and mercury; eliminate use of turpentine in mediums and solvents; and ventilate the studio by opening windows and by setting up a fan to move air between the artist and easel toward a window or door. He says artists who work where ventilation is poor should make a point of walking outside every few hours to exchange the air in their lungs.

For the recycling of artists’ materials, Gamblin offers these suggestions:

Reuse Gamsol until sediment no longer settles to the bottom, then dispose of it with motor oil at a local recycling center.

Ask the recycling center how to dispose of turpentine. It’s a toxic waste and a biohazard, so don’t just dump it into the soil or water.

Keep all rags and paper towels containing linseed oil in a closed metal container to prevent spontaneous combustion.

Use normal household-waste disposal methods for sludge from cans of odorless mineral spirits and artists’ grade oil colors with no health warnings on the packages.

Don’t wash artists’ materials of any kind down the drain.

George Leposky is editor of Ampersand Communications, a news-features syndicate based in Miami, Florida. 

For More Information

Gamblin Artists Colors Co.

Ampersand Communications


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