View Full Version : “Non-Toxic” and Other Revelations

08-29-2008, 06:05 PM
The term 'non-toxic' has a certain apparent meaning. But the actual meaning is not the same -- in fact, it turns out to be quite different. The term is actually based on a surprisingly limited test. The test is described with great clarity, specificity and precision in an excellent book on the subject of artists’ safety and health, written by a professional industrial hygienist, who is also a former professional chemist, and an artist -- and has specialized in the safety of artists’ materials and artists’ work environments for many years. She has a lot of experience in this field, and is able to present very specific examples of problems, and actual cases, including some fascinating court testimony by doctors. The book is currently in its third edition. It is one of the very best books I have found on the subject.

The Artist’s Complete Health and Safety Guide is the title. Amazon.com carries it, and there are reviews on their site.

The book is also available through libraries.

There are so many revelations and [finally!] points of clarity about various issues -- she cuts through and exposes a lot of rumors and myths, and industry lobbying and propaganda, and explains why available information (even on labels, and in Material Safety Data Sheets, or MSDSs) is often incomplete and misleading. And she does it with great clarity, and presents the evidence and references and resources to find out more.

I wish I could go through all of the main points and surprises in the book, but there are too many to cover all of them. Here are a few:

Acrylics contain many other ingredients besides those usually mentioned. Even those relatively few people who are aware of some of these are rarely aware of the length of the list, and the nature of all of the ingredients.She doesn’t suggest that acrylics in general are highly toxic, but she does show why good ventilation is an even better idea than I had previously thought.

Various toxic-metal and other pigments that are acid insoluble are less safe than their manufacturers and others suggest (and they are sometimes even less safe than their more-soluble counterparts). This was also pointed out to me by the director of safety at Golden Artist Colors [Golden are not the actual manufacturers or suppliers of the pigments; they buy wholesale from other sources, which are the ones to which he was referring. Golden themselves have excellent safety information, some of the best anywhere].
The book points out how and where some of these rumors of false safety get started and perpetuated. And she presents clear experimental evidence, along with actual court and medical testimony (an especially interesting case appears on pages 176-177), showing how extraordinarily faulty much of the information and lack of information, however widely held and circulated, actually is. It is amazing.
She shows how toxicologists are sometimes carefully chosen by companies who are paying them to certify one thing or another.
She exposes the effects of lobbying on the information that is presented to us, or concealed, or simply not mentioned. She shows a variety of loopholes in labeling and safety requirements. The book specifies the sources of, and motivations behind strong resistance to changes in laws, policies, disclosure requirements, labeling, and practices.
She gives a number of actual case histories and examples she has seen during her own career.
The book is well organized; its information is presented well; and it includes a variety of charts showing recommended maximum exposure levels and specific health hazards for a wide variety of substances used by artists. (I had wondered about isopropyl or rubbing alcohol -- to take one substance among many others that I had wondered about -- and she shows the threshold limit values, and explains that it is one of the least toxic.)
She explains how to make the safest choices in materials and solvents, and how to provide a safer studio environment.There is much more as well. The book is a goldmine – one of the very best I’ve ever seen on this subject.

It was worth it, to me, for even ten percent of what I got from it.

08-30-2008, 07:32 AM
I just live with the 'don't eat the paint' rule and am okay so far. ;) I know it's not really a lighthearted issue as my teacher had a growth/cyst/something in her nasal passage from working with aquatint (now far more safety regulated in classrooms than it used to be even a handful of years ago - I worked with it fairly openly about 9 years ago).

I'd be most curious not about the pigments themselves (since we don't work with raw pigments unless we're pastel artists) but the effects within the acrylic binder.

At the end of the day I would not compromise on my materials anyway - so choice of materials is not actually an option. That means studio design is the only solution. Fortunately even with my acrylics I work with open windows year-round anyway, except maybe one month or so out of the year, just due to my temperature tolerance more than anything else.