by Maria Doubrovskaia
Art challenges, probes, enlivens, decorates – but does it have to harm, as well? Are our art materials so toxic that they are covertly affecting our health and the environment? The answer is under debate, especially if the materials found in the artists’ studios include acids, aerosols, resins, turpentine, fiberglass, formaldehyde, and heavy metals like lead, cobalt, and cadmium. The list goes on and on. Obviously, these substances can affect the artists first and foremost. However, the full life cycle of a toxic product extends far beyond the studio and harms the environment for years and even decades. Surely, self-expression does not have to wreak havoc on our bodies and our surroundings. It may take some time to research and create a fully non-toxic studio, but the result is worth the effort. With Earth Day 2019 coming soon, Agora Gallery’s experts put together some helpful tips to keep your artistic practices as environmentally friendly as possible.
Read the Warning Labels
All art supplies sold in the United States must be labeled with the phrase “conforms to ASTM D 4236.” This label indicates that the product has been evaluated by the American Society for Testing and Materials for chronic health hazards, in accordance with the federal Labeling Hazardous Art Materials Act (LHAMA). LHAMA mandates that art supplies must contain warnings such as: “may cause skin irritation” or “harmful or fatal if swallowed.” They must also indicate the danger of causing chronic health effects, such as cancer, blindness, birth defects, and allergic reactions.
While helpful, LHAMA guidelines are not always completely reliable. The LHAMA falls short when it comes to products not intended for sale to schools or for use by children. Industrial and commercial house paint, ceramic materials and silkscreen printing inks fall outside the LHAMA purview. The same holds true for products imported from countries with less strict laws. Unfortunately, LHAMA also does not require manufacturers to list the ingredients of their products. To further research the safety of your art materials, look for labels from the Art and Creative Materials Institute. ACMI is a nonprofit organization made up of art supplies manufacturers who volunteer to have their products evaluated for safety by independent toxicologists and accredited labs. These evaluations occur every five years, whenever the ingredients of a product change, and at random.
The ACMI labels the art materials as AP (approved product) for all non-toxic products. Older products may have the CP (certified product) or HL (health label) seal instead of the AP. AP-labeled materials also do not contain dangerous levels of chemicals deemed harmful by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute of Health. However, these seals do not indicate that the product is completely free of toxins. Rather, they mean that the product contains no chemicals in sufficient quantities to harm the consumer’s health. Since no label is an absolute guarantee, it is always a good idea to research the products you work with as much as possible. If you can help it, avoid the following materials:
Airbrush and Spray Painting materials: they contain toxic pigments and solvents and are especially dangerous in poorly ventilated spaces.
Chemical solvents—such as methyl alcohol and toluene—are used in spays and fixatives, some permanent markers, mediums and varnishes, silkscreen inks, etching grounds, rubber cement, and some other adhesives, enamels, lacquers, and turpentine. In painting supplies, they dissolve pigments—some of which are also toxic— and allow paint to spread evenly. These substances pose a grave danger to health, causing organ damage and leading to blindness if swallowed.
Certain ceramic glazes. Glazes often contain heavy metals like cadmiums, chromium, and lead. Kiln firing releases more toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, damaging the environment in addition to your health. Additionally, dry clay contains silica dust and may also contain talc and asbestos. Make sure your studio is properly ventilated and use wet clay whenever possible.
Plasters may create a lot of toxic dust. Read the label and buy the safer versions of this material.
Aromatic, solvent-based markers contain xylene, a chemical dangerous for the nervous system, kidneys, respiratory and reproductive systems. Water-based markers generally do not pose a grave danger to your health.
Printmaking inks (water or oil-based) frequently rely on toxic pigments that contain dangerous inorganic compounds. Some inks contain solvents and preservatives. The printmaking process also involves acids such as the highly toxic hydrofluoric acid. An etching, lithography, or silk screening studio is full of harmful vapors. If you must work with these mediums, wear a mask!
Rubber cement and model glue. These are highly toxic substances, certainly not appropriate to be used by children. Rubber cement contains the neurotoxin hexane.
Oil-based paint may contain toxic pigments like lead, manganese, mercury, cadmiums, etc. The same holds true for water-based paint like acrylic, watercolor, and tempera. When using oil-based paint, avoid solvents and thinners like mineral spirits and turpentine.
Pastels may contain lead, cadmium, chrome, and other toxic compounds. Pastels release a lot of dust and require an equally toxic fixative to fasten the drawing to the paper. When working with pastels, it is best to wear gloves and a mask.
Varnishes and Lacquers are made of resins dissolved in solvents and are highly toxic.
PROPER VENTILATION: It Keeps You Breathing!
If you are working with known toxic materials, make sure your studio is properly ventilated and that you comply with all local environmental codes. A fume hood is a common fixture that helps limit exposure to fumes, vapors, and dust that is harmful when inhaled.
To Reduce the Environmental Impact of your Studio Practice, Invest in Environmentally Friendly Art Supplies.
In addition to health considerations, an eco-friendly artist considers all the processes involved in the production of art materials. Energy consumption, by-products, packaging, transportation, and proper disposal of the product all impact our environment. An environmentally responsible art practice supports the local economy. Buying from your local suppliers is a great way to reduce the huge environmental footprint left by airplanes and cars.
Research environmentally friendly alternatives to your toxic art materials. It is common for art supply stores like Blick to list them on their websites. When buying stretcher bars or wood for sculpture, invest in FSC (Forest Stewardship Council)-certified wood to make sure that it comes from responsibly managed forests. Choose grounds, supports, and media made entirely or partially from recycled materials. Recycled materials reduce waste and help curtail the consumption of natural resources. Today, technology is so advanced that the quality of these art products is often as good as that of new materials. Any art supplies made from recycled material will be labeled as such. The label will contain information as to how much of its composition is from recycled materials.
An eco-friendly studio should rely on energy-efficient light bulbs. Halogen bulbs, CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps), and LEDs (light emitting diodes) are more efficient and environmentally friendly than the old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs. They consume less energy and last longer.
Proper waste disposal
When possible, reduce, reuse and recycle your materials. For leftover art supplies, check their manufacturer’s websites for information on how to dispose of them properly. For example, if you paint with acrylic, Golden Paints, one of the leading producers of artist grade paint in the US, has a handy list of disposal tips for acrylic paint. They cover product storage tips to ensure all your tools stay usable, tips for cleaning your tools, and special instructions for disposing of your acrylics.
Looking to enhance your career and build a presence in New York? Submit your portfolio to us and get the opportunity to present your work to a broad range of national and international art collectors and buyers. Visit our Gallery Representation And Artist Promotion page for more information.
Improper disposal of art supplies leads to the contamination of the water supply and soil.
If you work with toxic materials, do get a toxic chemical container for the refuse, and bring your waste to the nearest disposal center. This will keep these chemicals from damaging the environment and will seal in vapors that endanger your health. It may take time and energy, but an eco-friendly studio practice is worth the effort. The wellbeing of our planet and our health should not be the price of beautifying and self-expression.
Maria Doubrovskaia is a visual artist and scholar. She moved to New York from St. Petersburg, Russia, when she was a kid. The Chelsea Hotel was seedy, and the Limelight was still a club back then. Maria loves cities and prefers slightly dangerous cities to glossy shiny ones. Some favorites are Naples, Palermo, Dakar, and Brooklyn before 9/11. If Maria was not a visual artist and a scholar, she would be an anthropologist.