SUBJECT: Art Hazards
RELEASED BY: Dan Sweetman

Asbestos. Dioxin. Pesticides. Lead. Nicotine. These terms are familiar to most of us in modern society. Every day we find that more and more of the chemicals we eat, breathe, drink, or work with are in some way hazardous to our health. But what about art materials? From childhood on we work with art materials and are encouraged to really get our hands into our work. In years past, we didn't know that many of the materials artists work with are hazardous, and some can even prove life-threatening. Some dangerous habits have developed over the years. What is the impact on our health when we point our paint brushes in our mouths, use solvents in poorly ventilated areas, or inhale wood dust or ceramic glazes?

We now know that exposure to chemicals on a prolonged basis or at high concentrations can cause serious health problems - some that do not show symptoms until many years after exposure. Many factors affect one's risk of health problems related to chemical exposures. Those who smoke, drink large amounts of alcoholic beverages or have allergies are more susceptible than those who don't. Reproductive factors may affect both men and women. Those under stress, elderly people, and children are also generally at higher risk.

You have a right to know about the hazards of the materials you use. Under State of Wisconsin law, your employer or professor should provide you with health and safety information (usually in the form of a material safety data sheet or "MSDS") for any hazardous chemical you use in the studio. Your professor will also help you determine what protective equipment should be used for a particular material, and will show you how to use it properly. If it is necessary for you to use a respirator, you will need to participate in a special campus program involving physical assessment, fit-testing, and special training. Do not use a respirator unless you've completed the program. To do so could be very dangerous.

This bulletin provides an overview of some of the hazards in the arts. It is not exhaustive. If you need more detailed information than is provided here, check with your professor or campus Environmental Health and Safety.

General Precautions

KNOW WHAT YOU'RE WORKING WITH and be familiar with its hazards BEFORE you use it. If you're not sure, step back and obtain more information to properly EVALUATE the hazards, or check with your professor. Never mix chemicals unless you know the expected outcome and studio conditions are safe to do so.

Always PROPERLY LABEL transfer containers so there's no confusion about the identity of the chemical. Use nonbreakable containers suitable for the material being stored.

PROTECT YOURSELF - Work with proper ventilation, machine guards and personal protective equipment. Select the CORRECT personal protective equipment. Check with your instructor for the correct selection.

PREVENT SPILLS - Use only the amount of material needed and close containers immediately after each use.

DON'T EAT, SMOKE, OR DRINK WHILE YOU'RE NEAR HAZARDOUS MATERIALS. You may accidentally ingest materials from your fingers, and smoking can provide a source of ignition for flammable solvents or gases being used. WASH YOUR HANDS before leaving the studio.

DON'T ALLOW CHILDREN TO WORK UNSUPERVISED - AND MAKE SURE THEY USE ONLY NON-TOXIC MATERIALS. They may be more sensitive than adults to the toxic effects of hazardous art materials.

USE TOOLS PROPERLY - Don't use equipment with missing guards, or exposed rotary or pinch points. Report them to your instructor who will notify the maintenance or safety office. Ordinary plastic dipped handles are designed for comfort, not electric insulation. Tools having high dielectric insulation are available. Do not improvise with tools: use each for its intended job. Don't subject a tool to temperatures or physical stresses beyond its threshold - like heating a pick, retooling a screwdriver or using it as a wedge.

Art Hazards by Class

Organic Solvents

WHERE THEY'RE USED: Organic solvents are a class of carbon-based liquids, commonly a component of oil based paints, printing inks, wood finishes and varnishes. Organic solvents such as lacquer thinner are used in printmaking to remove ink from the plates. They're also used in painting studios for brush cleaning and as a paint thinner.

HAZARDS: Organic solvents vary widely in their properties and toxicity. They are often volatile, meaning that they evaporate quickly, giving off vapors that may be harmful if inhaled. Some volatile solvents, like ethyl ether, can have an anaesthetic effect on the nervous system. Other solvents may cause long-term liver damage, or may otherwise impact the internal organs or nervous system over a long period Of time. Many organic solvents are also highly flammable. Their vapors can ignite easily, even at some distance from where the solvent is being used.

WORKSPACE SAFETY AND HANDLING PRECAUTIONS: Organic solvents can be harmful if inhaled or absorbed through the skin, so don't use them to wash your hands. Make sure there is good ventilation wherever solvents are used. If possible, work under a local ventilation source such as a properly operating hood. If you're using flammable solvents, make sure there are no ignition sources in the area, such as live electrical outlets, pilot lights, or other sparks or flames. Don't let solvent-soaked rags or absorbents accumulate; store them in a fireproof, tightly covered waste container. Use plunger cans to minimize the amount of solvent used. If you spill a flammable solvent in your work area, turn off any nearby ignition sources if you can, as you immediately leave the area, and seek proper assis- tance.

PERSONAL PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT: Wear gloves and goggles to protect your skin and eyes when handling solvent based products. Consult the MSDS for the solvent you're using to make sure that the type of glove you choose will protect against the particular solvent being used. If the MSDS warns against an inhalation hazard, you must work with good local exhaust ventilation.

PRODUCT SUBSTITUTIONS: Whenever possible replace highly flammable, toxic, or suspect and known human carcinogenic solvents with less toxic solvents. Especially avoid the use of ethyl ether, benzene, carbon tetrachloride, and chloroform. Check with your professor or contact the Environmental Health and Safety Office for assistance with identifying suitable substitutes.

Corrosive Materials

WHERE THEY'RE USED: The printmaking process uses strong acids, like hydrochloric (muriatic) and nitric acid, to etch designs into metal plates. Milder corrosives are found in textile dye solutions, and in photographic chemicals. Corrosives may be either acids, with a very low pH, or caustics, (bases), with a very high pH.

HAZARDS: Corrosive materials are hazardous because they burn, irritate or damage tissue on contact. Highly concentrated, strong corrosive materials, such as the etching solution used in printmaking, can cause severe, permanent injury to skin tissue. Concentrated corrosives also give off vapors which can damage the respiratory tissue and mucous membrane if inhaled.

WORKSPACE SAFETY AND HANDLING PRECAUTIONS: Use concentrated corrosive materials only in well ventilated areas. When diluting acids, add acid to the water, not the reverse. Pouring water into concentrated acid causes a violent reaction- spattering splashing and sudden build-up of heat. Be cautious of incompatibilities: some corrosives are oxidizers in their concen- trated form (eg. nitric and perchloric acids), and will react strongly with organic materials (e.g. paint thinner). Also, some acids and bases may be incompatible with each other. Concentrated corrosive materials will quickly penetrate most clothing materials and injure your skin, so if you accidentally splash yourself, remove any affected clothing, and rinse the skin liberally, for at least fifteen minutes. Make sure there is an eyewash station nearby before beginning work with corrosives. Eyewash stations are usually tagged to show the last date of inspection, but you can also check it yourself to make sure it provides clean rust-free water.

PERSONAL PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT: Goggles are a must whenever working with corrosives, and corrosive-resistant gloves are advisable. If you're using highly concentrated corrosives and there is the possibility of splashing or splattering, you should use corrosive -resistant long sleeved gloves and a face shield over your goggles. If you must work with concentrated corrosives such as fuming nitric acid, do so only under good local exhaust ventila- tion, such as a properly operating hood.

PRODUCT SUBSTITUTIONS: Whenever possible replace highly concentrated corrosives with more dilute solutions.

Hazardous Dusts, Fumes and Gases in the Art Studio

WHERE THEY'RE FOUND: Dusts may be a concern in ceramics studios, where clay and glaze powders are mixed, in the woodworking shop, and in sculpture studios where plaster is used. Fumes - minuscule particles of metals can arise from ceramics kilns, welding, or casting operations. Harmful gases are associated with kilns and welding operations.

HAZARDS: Dusts and fumes present both long- and short-term hazards. Dusts, molten metal, and injurious radiant energy (from welding) can all cause eye injuries. Any dust inhaled at high concentrations can cause respiratory irritation, and increase susceptibility to respiratory ailments. Most glazes and many clays contain silica, which can cause a lung disease called silicosis if exposure levels are high and of long duration. Many ceramics glazes also contain toxic metals such as lead and chromium. These and metal fumes such as cobalt and chromium oxides, from kilns, welding and casting operations, can cause a variety of long-term health effects if inhaled. Certain types of wood dusts may be cancer-causing agents. Suffocating gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, or sulfur dioxide can be emitted from kilns when they're being opened or closed, or if there is a failure in the venting systems on the kiln.

WORKSPACE SAFETY: The best protection from most of these respiratory hazards is strong local exhaust ventilation augmented by a sound general ventilation system. When working with lead solder or grinding ceramic pigments use a local exhaust ventilation source. Kilns must be kept in good operating condition to minimize the release of suffocating gases. Don't use a kiln if you think it isn't operating properly or it is posted for repairs.

PROTECTION FROM DUSTS, FUMES, AND GASES: Where ventilation is inadequate to reduce dusts or fumes to safe levels, you may need to wear a suitable respirator, but only if you've been trained and fit-tested under the respirator program. Goggles are needed for any operation that generates dust, flying particles or splashing molten metal. A specialized goggle or helmet is needed for welding.

PRODUCT SUBSTITUTIONS: Exposure to harmful dusts can be reduced by using commercially prepared pigments, rather than grinding your own. Especially avoid lead, cadmium, and chromium based glazes.


  • chromate pigment powder
    • Hazard: carcinogenic
    • Less Hazardous Substitute: pigments such as: Prussian Blue or Mars Yellow
  • uranium oxide glaze
    • Hazard: radiation hazard
    • Less Hazardous Substitute: glaze such as: iron oxide

In Case of Overexposure

If you use your materials according to label directions, follow studio procedures, and take the safety precautions outlined here, you will likely not be overexposed. But, if you suspect you've been overexposed to a material that you've been working with, let your professor and the campus Environmental Health & Safety (EH&S) Manager know immediately, even if you're not now experiencing any symptoms. Tell them the names of the materials you were working with, the conditions of your exposure, and any associated symptoms. They can help you get further assistance if necessary.

Waste Chemicals

Clean brushes and equipment with the smallest amount of solvent necessary.

Collect old cleaning solutions in containers clearly labeled with the name of the cleaner (e.g.. "Contains Waste Paint Thinner"). Do not collect waste in an unlabeled container. Don't mix wastes of different types or sources.

Keep waste containers closed at all times.

Contact your campus Environmental Health & Safety Manager to remove full waste containers and assist you with collection procedures.