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Before 1978, lead was a common component in paint. Now we know that exposure to lead can cause neurological problems, as well as blood and kidney disorders. As recently as the 1990s, the concentration of heavy metals like cadmium, cobalt, and manganese were far higher in artist pigments than they are today. Most of these heavy metals are carcinogenic and can also cause lung and kidney diseases. Solvents used for cleaning up paints and inks once contained large amounts of lung-damaging chemicals like toluene, xylene, and phenols. Ordinary rubber cement once contained n-hexane, a volatile solvent that causes severe peripheral nerve damage.
The first warning bells about toxicity sounded in the early-1970s, when a high incidence of bladder cancer was identified in Japanese kimono artisans working with benzidine in fabric dyes. After asbestos was proven to be carcinogenic and Love Canal, a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, was found to be sitting atop 21,000 tons of carcinogenic chemical waste, the government gained tighter control over toxic substances, including art materials.
Hazardous materials laws passed in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s have induced art materials manufacturers to reformulate and replace many of the more toxic pigments, solvents, adhesives, and inks. The federal Labeling of Hazardous Art Materials Act (LHAMA), which took effect in 1990, provided a clear directive to test art supplies with the American Society for Testing and Materials, and to label any products that may have acute and chronic impacts on human health. Those labels read, "harmful or fatal if swallowed" or "may cause skin irritation."
In California, the passage of Proposition 65 mandated that any materials sold in the state that may cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm must be labeled as such. Today, Prop 65 labels can be found on items as seemingly harmless as Moleskine notebooks with covers made from PVC, oil pastels, and crafting clay.
But it turns out the labeling system does not protect consumers as much as one might think. Unfortunately, to find out exactly what chemical is prompting the Prop 65 label, consumers have to seek out a Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) from the manufacturer because the law doesn't require full disclosure of ingredients on labels. Reading an MSDS can be quite an undertaking; the scientific language is often indecipherable for the layperson.
Beyond the Prop 65 and LHAMA label mandates, consumers are also urged to look for the Art & Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) Approved Product seal of approval that has been phasing in over the past twelve years and appears on about 85 percent of all art supplies sold in the United States. Art & Creative Materials Institute is an industry trade group composed of hundreds of manufacturers who voluntarily submit their products to be independently certified "non-toxic" through toxicological testing. The group claims that it is more stringent than the guidelines set forth by the American Society for Testing and Materials, called the D4236 standard, which is now used to test all art materials in the country. But even the ACMI designation of "non-toxic" keeps generating controversy.
"In most cases, the 'nontoxic' label is meaningless and should be ignored," said Monona Rossol, an industrial hygienist and chemist based in Manhattan who has written safety guides for artists and recently published Pick Your Poison: How Our Mad Dash to Chemical Utopia is Making Lab Rats of Us All. She pointed out that although there are usually (but not always) warning labels on products containing known carcinogens like cadmium, and on lead-containing paints, less than 1 percent of the 150,000 chemicals used in consumer products have been thoroughly tested for cancer, birth defects, or other long-term hazards. This includes nearly all of the organic pigments found in artists' paints and inks, which produce colors like alizarin crimson, phthalo blue, and fluorescents.
So while these untested chemicals may legally be labeled "nontoxic" under the federal Labeling of Hazardous Art Materials Act, that may not be true.
Knowing which hazardous products to avoid and how to properly use them is one major hurdle; the other is how to responsibly dispose of products once they've been used.
Mark Gottsegen of AMIEN.org (which stands for Art Materials Information and Education Network) advises artists to consider any waste generated during art-making as hazardous. "If you make a bad painting and crumple it and put it in the trash, it is hazardous. So you should collect it and have someone take care of it, and that includes wash water," he said, referring to the water used to clean anything that has paint on it.
Michael Hall collects all rags in his San Francisco studio that may have oils or other non-soluble materials and separates them in appropriate bins that are then given to municipal hazardous waste collection. He also steers clear of all cleaning solvents. "One of the best things for artists to use is just some baby oil or vegetable oil and some soap to clean your brushes," he said. "This is the very traditional way of cleaning, which got eliminated when modern chemistry came into the picture. Going back to the basics is an excellent way to turn your studio around into an ecologically sound space."
But he admits that many of his colleagues don't follow these best practices. And by law, they actually don't have to. The Environmental Protection Agency exempts most private art studios from its hazardous waste laws.