Health Concerns for Artists

How often have you read the warning labels on your cleaning supplies? What about your art supplies? Perhaps it is because the warning list are long, complicated or difficult to understand that people ignore them. What ever the reason, health complications for artists is a serious issue that compounds over time through repeat exposure.

In a society where we now worry about ingesting contaminated food, we should apply the same caution using our work and hobby related materials.

The first year I ever experienced a sinus infection was also the first year I worked with large quantities of unmixed plaster. Coincidence? Maybe. But if you’ve ever mixed large quantities of plaster, you’re aware of how the dust lingers in the air and will coat your body mouth and nostrils if you aren’t wearing a dust mask. So in other words, the first thing to protect yourself from should be any sort of airborne particles. If you can blow it out into a tissue at the end of your work session, you should be taking precautionary measures. Be especially cautious of pigmented dust, (like from pastels) because it might also contain cancer causing heavy metals such as cadmium.

Another airborne danger is vapor inhalation. Just this morning I was thinking back to how much I loved playing with the markers and pencils at my grandparent’s house as a child and my nostalgia was triggered by the smell of a permanent marker. Again, not something you should sniff a lot of. Some vaporous products trick people into believe that they are safe because the are labeled odorless. Wrong! Usually you won’t know it is affecting you until you start to feel dizzy or light headed. To protect yourself, always read the warning label on the side of the container. Why risk killing off brain cells you might need to create your next masterpiece? And if you pooh-pooh the risk keep in mind that building up a toxic level of a material (like turpentine) might prevent you from working with it again, forcing you to change your choice of materials. I knew someone in graduate school that this happened to. Ventilate your working space well, or invest in a respirator or specialized air purifier.

Skin absorption is another danger that is not viewed very seriously. Most people by now understand the concept of nicoteen patches so apply the same concept to your paints. You should be most concerned with any pigments that contain specialized health warnings. Solvents can also be absorbed into your skin. I once received a chemical burn on my wrist years ago when I worked at a photo shop. Some chemicals splashed onto my watch band and although I washed it immediately, unbeknownst to me the chemical was still present. By the following day I had a blistered rash on my wrist, directly under the watch band. Keep your clothing clean and protect your skin with barrier cream or solvent resistant gloves. Also, just because I’ve seen it done so many times, don’t use solvent to clean your skin. For oil based stains try an oily product first to cleanse the skin, like baby or olive oil. Then wash with soap and water. Lava soap is a great hand soap for artists because of the pumice particles that help scrub away paint, but also for its economical price.

Another easily overlooked hazard is accidental ingestion. Though I have heard a horror story of some actually drinking turpentine by accident it is a small concern compared to what you might take in on your lunch or smoke break. Often people don’t think to wash their hands before eating a snack or having a cigarette. Both have the potential to transfer hazardous materials from your hands to your mouth. By being aware of these potential dangers, you help insure that you’ll be making art how you’d like, for as long as you’d like.