Toxic Art 

On shelves, in studios, and at schools, art supplies containing toxic ingredients pose risks to human health and the environment.

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But there are regulations that govern institutional art studios. By federal law, OSHA mandates that all employers must provide their employees with a safe workplace. This requires the training of workers, including teachers, who use potentially toxic materials. 

Under OSHA's "right to know" provision, teachers are entitled to know everything about the risks and hazards of the materials and processes that they will be expected to use. To be in compliance with the law, employers must formally identify all of the potential health risks and provide MSDS sheets and instruction for faculty in how to read them. Faculty members then have an obligation to ensure a safe work environment for students, which would include training them to recognize flammable, toxic, and hazardous materials and respond appropriately to spills, fires, and other emergencies.

Anecdotally, it appears that many schools are violating OSHA standards. Over the past ten years, OSHA conducted investigations of several major East Coast universities and found science and art departments non-compliant with the faculty right-to-know provision. These schools were fined and had to develop curriculum to come into compliance. Monona Rossol said that OSHA won't cite a school for not protecting their students under their regulations, but failure to provide untrained and inexperienced students with the same or even greater protection than is required for teachers puts the school at risk of liability.

Mark Gottsegen estimates that "there are probably ten US schools that have a dedicated course on materials and the rest don't." In the Bay Area, the Express found no schools that offer this type of in-depth class on art materials composition. A lot of schools tend to wait to implement health and safety instruction until OSHA or the EPA has cited them for costly violations. Rossol contends that most art schools don't follow the laws. If they did, then both teachers and students would understand how to evaluate MSDS sheets. 

Several local schools say they are providing appropriate information to teachers and students. But others are not forthcoming with information and some students report that training is inadequate or nonexistent.

At the San Francisco Art Institute, faculty are required to attend an annual training with Rossol in which she presents a thorough overview of safety and hazard information that educators then pass on to students. The ceramics department has banished lead, which is commonly found in various firing glazes.

UC Berkeley's art department works with the university's Office of Environmental Health and Safety to ensure that studios are properly ventilated, that hazardous waste is collected, and that all materials are labeled and have MSDS information. The Office of Environmental Health and Safety also offers workshops three times a year for students working in the campus' fifty shops and studios. Yet Teresa Smith of the sculpture department says that some faculty members see the training and precautions as a joke and complain that they limit creative options. "It's always a mystery as to why they don't take it more seriously," she said. "We've had a number of faculty die in this department. Fifteen years ago, Joan Brown got killed by her own work falling on her. It's a very real concern."

Smith herself is a cancer survivor, and now is vigilant about protecting herself from exposure to dust and fumes, even avoiding simple glue guns. "People still don't understand that when plastics get heated up, they off-gas toxic chemicals, and there is still not enough information about how plastics play with your hormones. I always ask people, 'Don't you want to open the window?' They aren't that aware," she said.

At the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, Vice President Susan Toland wrote in an e-mail that "faculty members and technicians are fully trained in safety protocol," and "as part of their training, students are provided with full hazard material safety and disposal protocols based on OSHA guidelines." But Jennifer Davidson, a master's student in the Interior Architecture and Design department, says otherwise. "I personally have not been given or offered training to mitigate damage from hazardous chemicals," she said. 

When this reporter was employed for two years as an adjunct instructor at the Academy of Art University, I never received any hazardous materials training. But I did witness several colleagues instructing students improperly about the use of spray fixatives and modeling glues, and several times I watched students ignore safety protocols for spray booths.

Mark San Buenaventura, an industrial design student at the Academy of Art University, said that while he did receive adequate training for working with potentially toxic materials like spray paints and modeling foams, he wished that he had been taught about non-toxic alternatives to those dangerous supplies. "They just leave that part up to us, if we care about it enough," he said. A master's student in the graduate graphic design program, who requested to remain anonymous, felt empowered that the academy didn't provide information about how to properly use spray adhesives or how to source less-toxic inks for her projects. "They expect you to have the basic skills, so they leave it up to you to learn it if you don't know it. Students have a choice about their own materials," she said. However appealing, this lax policy constitutes negligence.

The California College of the Arts, on the other hand, has banned spray adhesives from its two campuses in San Francisco and Oakland, along with fiberglass and pressure-treated lumber, some of the more hazardous model-making materials. But ceramics graduate student James Coquia reported that he did not receive specific training about hazardous art materials. Coquia also commented generally that the clay studios at CCA are similar to other places he's worked in. "These studios are atrocious in regard to the amount of clay dust that's put into the air," he said.

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