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Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Look at Toxicity in Visual Arts Materials (revised version, New and Improved!))

   Three Skulls                                                    © Patch

Have revised my older version that will be published in The Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts Quarterly. The article will appear just as new legislation is being proposed to Congress to create stronger regulations and inspections on manufacturers of all products that contain materials that recent science has proven negative health effects from chemicals presently being used in all, not just art, manufacturing. The bill asks for further studies on those chemicals that have not been researched thoroughly, or at all, that are being used in manufacturing presently. Have just sent an email to Congress and to my NC State Senators and Representives asking them for their support in passing the new legislation of the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 along with my article. The Safe Chemicals Act would go a long way to bring federal safe chemicals policy into the 21st century and to reduce a significant threat to American's health and environment from toxic chemicals. Please let your Members of Congress know that we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get this legislation right. To stay on top of the issue visit the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition at

A Look at Toxicity in Visual Arts Materials
© Greg Patch 2010

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 intoxicating art materials and imagery we don’t perceive the dangers inherent in the materials used to create them. Some of the responsibility for its’ hidden aspects is with those bodies funding the visual arts. Many are petroleum (Mobil-Exxon and Getty), chemical (Dow) and governmental sources. (Art and Creative Materials Institute [ACMI] and the NEA)

The group Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) is a non-profit trade certifying association of manufacturers of art materials in the U.S. They are responsible for labeling and monitoring art paints and materials for their safety. Simply, they are largely sponsored by "in house" industrial representatives.

Most art material manufacturing companies provide MSDS's on their websites. It ‘s revealing 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 breast feeding 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 Cater. 1. Toxic to Reproductive Health Cater. 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.”

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. They are by law to be readily available to the public. Some are, others, like Crayola require jumping though hoops to acquire. Here are a few links to some of the larger manufacturer’s MSDS that are easily accessible:
Liquitex: safety/msds.cfm
Windsor Newton:

Contacting Grumbacher (Chartpak) by email, I received instructions to navigate their website to get individual color. With Alizirin Crimson the warning; “This product contains lead, a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.” with no first aid suggestions listed.

The cobalt, chrome, manganese and barium colors are toxic as are most commercial terpentine, fixative, varnish, plastic/acrylic, and preservative, ie. formaldehyde. Many manufacturers and retailers use the term organic in describing their art products based on that they are derived from an organic compound. This is not the typical garden variety organic. Arsenic, lead and cyanide are organic compounds. 

Some of the more common colors from the City of Tucson, AZ Environmental Services Department’s website hazards/paint1.html that have hazardous warnings (keep in mind that materials exposed to the skin are ingested):

- Manganese Blue; ingestion and inhalation is categorised as possibly highly toxic.
- Prussian Blue is moderately toxic when ingested and produces extremely toxic hydrogen cyanide gas if heated or treated with acid or ultraviolet radiation.
-Burnt Umber is moderately toxic when ingested and possibly highly toxic when inhaled.
- Chrome Green is Highly toxic if ingested and extremely toxic when inhaled. It is a known carcinogen; DO NOT USE.
- Cadmium Barium Orange and Cadmium Orange are both highly toxic when inhaled and are probable carcinogens
- Alizarin Crimson may cause some allergies
- Cadmium Red is highly toxic when inhaled and slightly toxic when ingested. It is a probable carcinogen.
- Vermillion is extremely toxic when ingested and highly toxic when inhaled, it can cause skin allergies and it forms hydrogen sulfide in combination with stomach acid; most vermilion today is a mixture of less toxic organic pigments.
- Cobalt Violet is highly toxic ingested or inhaled.
- Cadmium Yellow is a possible chronic hazard and a probable carcinogen.

Many colors on their website are listed as having no significant hazards, some colors are listed as having unknown effects and that long-term hazards are unknown.

Health conditions from skin rash and burning eyes to cancers, respiratory, immunological, nervous, cardiovascular and circulatory, genitary and digestive diseases could be sourced to using these materials. There needs to be more funding to exploring these possibilities. With the warning of not to be used by pregnant and nursing mothers the question arises; at what level is this warned toxicity effecting the rest of us and domestic and wildlife?

Listed below are a group of pigments that have “no significant hazards”. These also are provided by the City of Tucson, AZ and Their Environmental Services Department “Health & Safety in the Arts, A  Searchable Database of Health & Safety Information for Artists” website.

Charcoal Black
Bone Black
Graphite Black/Stove Black Pigment Black #10
Mars Black
Phthalocyanine Blue
Ultramarine Blue
Burnt Sienna
Van Dyke Brown
Green Earth #23
Phthalocyanine Green
Ultramarine Green #24
Mars Orange Pigment Red #101
Indian red (red iron oxide)
Ultramarine Red Pigment Violet #15
Mars Violet Pigment Red #101
Ultramarine Violet Pigment Violet #15
White Pigment White #24
White Pigment White #18
White Pigment White #23
Titanium White White #6
Mars Yellow
Raw Sienna
Yellow Ochre
Yellow Iron Oxide Pigment Yellow #42, #43
Metallic Gold Pigment Metal #3
Metallic Silver has more information on hazards in their Occupational Health Care Hazards for Artists, and take look at Square Feet Chicago's "Safe and Healthy Spaces".

What happens to our environment when a manufacturing plant produces large quantities of paints using toxic materials? The EPA is responsible for this. How is it regulated? I’ve written and called the EPA in the past for any information they could send me and have not received any response.  Perhaps if more write and call the Environmental Protection Agency and ask them what there regulations are and how are they regulating and enforcing the industries more accountability will be made available.
Environmental Protection Agency
Ariel Rios Building
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20460
(202) 272-0167
TTY (speech- and hearing-impaired) (202) 272-0165

How many artists, art students, children, pregnant and nursing mothers and hobbyists are using the necessary precautions when handling the materials; ventilation. ventilators, effective masks, gloves, long sleave shirts, etc.? Once the painting is finished and placed in the living room, kitchen, cafe, outdoor public facility, gallery or museum, what is the air  and ground quality produced by VOCs/off gases and the toxic pigments themselves, immediate and accumulative?

Sustainable solutions are at our fingertips. A look at the alternatives with painting mediums that do not create a toxic body or environment shows egg tempera, casein (for the lactose intolerant casein is milk based), water, beeswax mediums and organic linseed and flax oils. Each, or a combination of these can be used without toxic pigments, petrochemicals (petroleum based varnishes, acrylics, fixatives), heavy metals (cadmium, barium, etc.), formaldehyde and other preservatives that are in common use with many paints.

There are many books and websites with recipes for making oil, watercolor, casein, egg tempera and beeswax or encaustic paints. Using pigments with no significant hazards, natural resins, varnishes and etc. in these recipes is not difficult. It adds even more integrity to the essence of the work!

A good recipe for making or manufacturing a relatively safe oil paint can be found at The Earth Pigments Company (nci) website.
The Earth Pigments Company also offers a recipe for egg tempera at For casein (milk base), for watercolor and gouache, and for encaustic (beeswax)
There are other sources for paint recipes, Ralph Mayer’s “Artist Handbook of Materials and Techniques” is an old standard. 

Sculptors can work with clay/earth/stone, wood, metal, fire, water, air and/or ether to create work used in an environmental and personal healthy considerate way.

True sustainability is in question with our using toxic recyclables, ie., automobile tires, plastics/pcb based, acrylics, polyvinyls, concrete, etc. and certain metals to create art. Is the idea of keeping and working with these materials justifiable in creating a cleaner environment and healthy populations of humans and wildlife? Is creating works of art with toxic materials to make a statement about the condition of the declining environment practical and sensible? Are sources for sustainable art supplies a personal objective determined on how sustainable one can integrate our lives, or is there such a thing as purity regarding non hazardous materials?

There’s been exciting activity in the last 30 or more years with artists applying the natural world to create artistic statements. Websites to view what is going on in environmental art, sustainable art and green art with many artists and healthy approaches as examples are: 
Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts - 
ecoartspace -
Green Arts Web - -
Morning Earth -

I have used beeswax alone on Phragmites australis, an “invasive” grass, panels I constructed and beeswax with various colored “dirt” (ochres and granites). A crayon of beeswax and natural pigment has been a favorite of mine for years that is manufactured by the Stockmar Company (nci) in Germany. These waxes/crayons are color fast (the colors are tested to last 100 years), the carefully selected pigments are food container safe. They can be used room temperature or heated to liquid. This form of painting/drawing is free of turpentine, processed oils, petrochemicals/plastics, or, any toxic metals/chemicals. My next phase will be mixing some of the previous mentioned pigments with beeswax. I prefer to use only pigment and beeswax without hardeners as part of my statement with my artwork. I consider this to be speaking to the process symbolising the transience of life and the ideal of non attachment to the material world similar to ideas expressed in Buddhist, Native American, Australian Aborigine and other traditional world cultures’ sand painting.
Check out what I’m up to at and

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