The environmental and/or health effects of visual art mediums are a subject not on the forefront of the public’s mind. Perhaps, in part, lured by artistic imagery we don’t perceive the dangers inherent in the materials used to create them. I also believe much of the responsibility for its’ hidden aspects is with those bodies funding the visual arts. Many are petroleum, chemical and governmental sources.
The group Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) is a non-profit trade association of manufacturers of art materials. They are responsible for labeling and monitoring art paints for their safety. In other words they are largely sponsored by "in house" industrial representatives. Guess what!
It’s interesting to go to the manufacturer websites of visual arts supplies and read through their safety data sheets. As one example the following is quoted from Windsor Newton’s site on the commonly used Flake White oil paint:
“USAGE PRECAUTIONS: Avoid spilling, skin and eye contact. Wear full protective clothing for prolonged exposure and/or high concentrations. Pregnant or breastfeeding women must not handle this product.
STORAGE PRECAUTIONS: Keep in cool, dry, ventilated storage and closed containers.
STORAGE CRITERIA: Misc.hazardous material storage.
INHALATION: Harmful by inhalation. Harmful: danger of serious damage to health by prolonged exposure through inhalation.
INGESTION: Harmful if swallowed. Harmful: possible risk of irreversible effects if swallowed.
SKIN: Product has a defatting effect on skin.
EYES: Irritating to eyes.
HEALTH WARNINGS: Swallowing concentrated chemical may cause severe internal injury.
OTHER HEALTH EFFECTS: Toxic to Reproductive Health Categ. 1. Toxic to Reproductive Health Categ. 3. Carcinogen Category 3.
ROUTE OF ENTRY: Inhalation. Ingestion.” [skin absorption.]
MEDICAL SYMPTOMS: Upper respiratory irritation. Nausea, vomiting. Allergic rash.
MEDICAL CONSIDERATIONS: Skin disorders and allergies.”
So not to single out Windsor & Newton nor Flake White more information on toxicity in oil, acrylic, watercolor, etc. paints can be found by requesting a Material Data Safety Sheet (MSDS) from individual manufacturers, ie: Utrecht, Rembrandt, Liquitex, Crayola, etc.) Most of these companies provide MSDS's on their websites. The Cobalts, chromes and barium colors are significantly toxic as are terpentines, fixatives, varnishes, plastics/acrylics, and preservatives, ie. formaldehyde.
Taking this a little further one asks, “what happens to the environment when a manufacturing plant produces large quantities of this material?” and “how many artists, art students, and hobbyists are using the very necessary precautions when handling the paints?” Once the painting is finished and placed in the living room, kitchen or museum, what is the air quality produced by VOCs/off gases?
A look at the alternatives with the painting arts that do not produce a toxic body or environment gives egg tempera, casein (milk), water and beeswax mediums. All can be used without toxic pigments, petro chemicals (varnishes, acrylics, fixatives), heavy metals (cadmium, chromium), and formaldehyde and other preservatives that are in common use with many paints.
For more information on toxicity in artist's pigments:
http://www.healthcareforartists.org/ and http://www.ci.tucson.az.us/arthazards/paint1.html have more information on hazards, and also look at Square Feet Chicago's "Safe and Healthy Spaces".
With sculpture there is clay/earth/stone, wood, fire, water and air to create work.
Sustainable solutions are at our fingertips.
There’s been alot of excitement in the last 30 or so years with artists applying the natural world to create their statement. A wonderful website to view what is going on in environmental art, with many artists and approaches as examples, is www.greenmuseum.org.