The Safety of Paint Vehicles
Shopping and Caring for Your Watercolors
In the Garden of Hesperides
The Safety of Paint VehiclesHealthy Green Artists
by Janet Chui
Buckle your seat belt! I've been looking forward to writing about this subject for a while, at the same time I dreaded doing the research for it. But since we've covered safety and hazard labels for traditional artists in August, this may feel just like a continuation. Today we're examining the chemicals that go into the vehicles of various painting media. I'm using Ralph Mayer's definition of painting - the application of color to a surface. Mostly traditional art. (Digital artists get to skip reading again! Remember to take care of your wrists!)
Any kind of color media is basically a pairing of the following:
- Pigment, which we're not going to spend too much time on this month. These are dry powders of color that can be obtained either artificially or through natural sources. When you paint, you're pushing and pulling these pigments around.
- The vehicle, which is a catch-all name for the liquid (usually) in which the color pigments are suspended. Different media and different brands basically have their own (secret) recipes. Crayons, for examples, are pigment suspended in water and gum. (They are dried into their solid form.) Inks are sometimes pigments in water and shellac. As you've probably figured by now, the properties of different vehicles can differ widely, and all to give artists plenty of options as to how to create their masterpieces. For art-making, vehicles have been developed and refined for the for these 3 properties:
If an artist has a special preference for working with painting on upright easels, or painting on metal, cloth, or wood, they also choose their paint medium on the basis of the properties of the vehicle - if the paint will adhere to their preferred surface, how permanent it is, and its viscosity.
So what typically goes into the vehicle itself? Sometimes you think you know (gum arabic! linseed oil!) but the fact is that many paint manufacturers do not release the full ingredients in their paints, and Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) on the products sometimes read of suspicious optimism. ("No health effects known at this time.") Even when products have safety certification, there are other researchers finding out and documenting their adverse long-term effects. Getting the list of the chemicals actually used in paint products takes some inside knowledge, some research on indoor air pollutants and studies of chemicals linked with cancer, and textbooks on making artists' paint. When certain chemicals appear in more than one of these places, well, you know that can't be good.
Preservatives in paint to watch include the following:
Phenol - a poison and skin irritant. Concentrated external exposure causes severe skin burns, yet it is also used for cosmetic purposes. Then again, phenol was used as a deadly injection in WWII. Internally, phenol damages the central nervous system, kidneys, and liver.
Formaldehyde, Formalin - Formalin is a trade name for formaldehyde, a naturally occuring gas compound that is also industrially produced for all sorts of commercial uses, including as a preservative in paints (since it kills bacteria). Products treated with formaldehyde typically do not come with warning labels, though people who study indoor air and home safety think it should. There is evidence that formaldehyde is carcinogenic; long term exposure can lead to cancer of the nose and throat. Besides being a strong irritant to skin, eyes, and the respiratory system; it can cause allergic reactions by skin contact & inhalation, and is toxic by ingestion. One note: though exposure to formaldehyde in paint is a definite possibility, eliminating your paint probably would not eliminate formaldehyde from one's home or office, since formaldehyde is also used to treat everything from soft furnishings to bedsheets and clothing (yes, really). One would need to keep in mind other sources of formaldehyde in the home, and avoid buying products that have been treated with formaldehyde (pressed wood furniture, permanent press fabric, and synthetic carpeting, though this is not an exhaustive list).
Toxic chemicals specific to certain paints:
Casein and fresco paints - Casein is also called milk paint, and is made with pigment, milk, and hydrated (slaked) lime also known as calcium hydroxide. Fresco paints also contain lime. Such products should not be used by children; calcium hydroxide is a corrosive skin, eye and respiratory irritant, and overdoses can cause difficulty breathing, hypotension, and changes in blood pH.
Tempera paint - many paint manufacturers have confused the subject of tempera paint by calling any opague paint "tempera" even though tempera historically referred to a very specific "tempered" paint. Real tempera is rare to happen upon commercially, but if one does come across it, do note that phenol is usually a key component, and that older tubes of tempera may have employed tetrachloroethane in its manufacture. Tetrachloroethane is a poisonous air and water pollutant.
Latex paint - this is relevent for artists who may use interior wall paints for murals. It is worth the extra cost of getting a paint with low or zero emission of VOCs (volatile organic compounds). A VOC is an organic chemical that becomes a breathable gas at room temperature. Examples include benzene, ethylene glycol, vinyl chloride and mercury, all of which are nasty!
Oil paint - I thought I'd include this here as its ommisson from this list might raise eyebrows. Oil paint's vehicle is typically an organic oil, like linseed or safflower, sometimes walnut or soybean oil. So the pure vehicle isn't toxic per se, but some of the pigments traditionally used in oil paint are, and we aren't covering pigments this month. Most of the dangers as far as painting with oil actually come from the use or manufacturer-inclusion of solvents, used to wash paint brushes or thin the paint for quicker drying.
Alkyds - "fast-drying oils" that are similar to oils except solvents and "driers" (usually organic metal salts) are added to, well, make the paint dry faster. Lead used to be a drier added to alkyds, now cobalt, zirconium, zinc, calcium, and iron are used instead. (Cobalt occurs naturally but is still dangerous in high concentrations). Toluene and xylene are chemicals of concern that may also be part of alkyds or used in the manufacturing process. Xylene is a derivative or benzene that affects the nervous system. Short-term exposure can cause irritation of the skin, breathing difficulty and nausea. Xylene can cause long-term brain damage. Pregnant mums are advised to minimize their exposure to this chemical. Toulene has similar effects, and in addition to being present in certain paints, it can also be found paint thinners, fingernail polish, lacquers, and adhesives.
(Don't eat your paint. Don't eat your paint. Don't eat your paint!)
Pen and ink - toluene is present.
Markers - xylene is present, as well as propyl alcohol and methyl isobutyl ketone (MIBK). Symptoms to these chemicals include headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and unconsciousness. Always use markers with good ventilation and purchase water-based markers if possible.
When it comes to safety in art-making, ignorance is not bliss. The Web sites for many paint and art-supply manufacturers include a "Health and Safety" section that includes links to their Materials Safety Data Sheets. I recommend learning to read these, and reading them with a critical eye. You'll find they typically do NOT list the dangerous chemicals involved even when an MSDS may contain an alarming list of precautions - and it takes some sleuthing to find out what the chemicals may be. And a general guideline is that what isn't great for the artist's health isn't great for the environment either. Oh well - painting is a constant learning process!
Happy and safe art-making!
Links of note:
Make your own paint!
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