Artists should take the time to educate themselves about the safe use of the materials and equipment they choose to use so they can safely produce artwork. Promoting best safety practices to students, assistants and their audiences can help improve safety overall and minimize hazards.

Studio Art instructors are responsible not only for their own health, but also for the health of the students they work with or hire and for other occupants working throughout Williams Hall.

Chemical Routes of Exposure

Chemicals can enter the body through the lungs (inhalation), skin (permeation), digestive tract (ingestion) or by being punctured (injection). Kinetic hazards are repetitive motions that can stress the body, whether from extended sessions of hammering on metal or from long hours making digital design on a computer. Artists should also protect their hearing from loud tools, machines, or processes.

The level of toxicity, the length of exposure, the age of the artist, and his or her general health can all affect how any one individual may react to any health hazard. Immediate (acute) and severe hazards are usually quickly identified. However,  chromic hazards, such as those that develop due to a long-term exposure to low levels of dust, noise, and certain solvents or chemicals, may produce symptoms of mild but chronic headaches, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, coughing, hearing loss, organ dysfunction, or skin irritation.

UVM recommends that artists learn the potential hazards of all their materials and processes and be mindful of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) labels and Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for any supplies used to produce works of art.
Commit To Sustainability

Artists should incorporate sustainable practices into all art production and education. Sustainability goes beyond the health of the participant to include supporting the health of the planet. Artists and educators should be aware of issues of energy input, environmental burden, carbon footprint, and life-cycle analyses related to the materials and processes in the production, use, and disposal of materials employed in their work. UVM recommends that the art world make a continuing effort to minimize its contribution to pollution and waste, implementing sustainable practices whenever possible. Increased recycling, lowered volatile organic compound (VOC) production, local and regional sourcing of materials, and reduced used of petroleum-based materials are all starting points.


Labeling of Art Materials

Read The Label

Everyone should follow basic precautions when using artist supplies and products. Err on the side of caution when using art materials. Always read the label and the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) of the product you are using. 

Health and safety information on artist materials can be challenging to interpret. Much of the industry uses the Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) AP and CL seals on their labels.

AP stands for APPROVED PRODUCT and is usually accompanied by the word "Nontoxic".

CL is an abbreviation for CAUTIONARY LABEL, and is used when risk and safety information is required on the label.

The following are reasons for artists to question the "nontoxic" message.

A few of these are listed below:

  • Potentially toxic chemicals are likely present at some level in all products, regardless of risk assessment.
  • It is inappropriate to assume that all possible chronic hazards of chemicals are currently known.
  • Personal exposure should be prevented when using chemical products.

Reading "nontoxic" on artist material labels implies that the paints, for example, can be used for activities such as body painting, painting with the fingers or tongue, tattooing, and decorating dishware.  If one reads more about this topic, this is not necessarily a safe way to use these products.

Toxicology Review of Art Materials

Federal law requires toxicologists to evaluate art materials and appropriately label them with warnings for any potential acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) health hazards. This evaluation is performed according to the guidelines of ASTM D 4236, Standard Practice for Labeling Art Materials for Chronic Health Hazards. The assessment uses factors such as chemical form and concentration, anticipated frequency and duration of use, and bioavailability of the chemical. Bioavailability is the extent that a substance can be absorbed in the body in a biologically active form.

The way art products are evaluated relies on the use of averages and assumptions; the nature of the process leaves a lot of room for debate about many of the individual factors used. The result is that different opinions may arise as to the relative toxicity of a particular art material. These are complex issues and there is validity in more than one opinion.

Realize that the toxicological assessment of a product can only rely upon current scientific and medical knowledge of existing chemical hazards. Although ASTM D 4236 states that "knowledge about chronic health hazards is incomplete", there has been a leap made from describing materials as having the "absence of known hazards" to declaring that a product is "non-toxic" under the ASTM Standard. These phrases mean the same thing.

California Prop 65 Warnings

The State of California has unique labeling requirements for products that contain certain chemicals. These chemicals are listed, under rules of the California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act (otherwise known as "Proposition 65"), as being known to cause cancer and/or reproductive toxicity. If chemicals on this list are in products sold in California, the product label is required to provide clear and reasonable warning to that effect.

Prop 65 exempts products that do not pose a "significant risk" from the labeling requirement. However, as described above, "significant risk" is another debatable term (just like "organic" food). The result is that   warnings are applied to all products that contain any Prop 65-listed chemicals. These will also be listed as ingredients on the product's Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) and/or label.

Chemicals on the Prop 65 List include things like cobalt, nickel compounds, cadmium compounds, carbon black, chromium, lead and crystalline silica. For products containing these chemicals, the label will include phrases such as: "WARNING: This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer".

X Means Harmful

Products deemed to present a significant risk under conditions of foreseeable use, based upon Federal guidelines (ASTM D 4236), carry the European symbol for a harmful product, which is a prominent black X on an orange background. This should draw attention to the fact that these products should not be applies by spraying.

Pollution Prevention

Pollution Prevention is key to any good Art Safety Program.

Since most art activities produce some form of solid or chemical waste, always consider the following before getting started:

  • good housekeeping
  • inventory control
  • in-process recycling
  • product substitution
  • process changes
  • waste segregation

To reduce chemical safety hazards in the art studio, best practices include:

Elimination:  of hazardous art materials.
Substitution:  of less hazardous art materials.
Minimization: Making procedural changes to minimize generating hazardous waste.
And finally, improving all studio safety management practices.

Eliminating a technique that uses dangerous chemicals can be a safe alternative to storing, working with and disposing of hazardous materials.

Sometimes you just need to use a solvent, pigment, dye, glaze or solder. Common substitutions include using lead-free solder, cadmium and barium-free glazes, fluoride-free fluxes and latex vs oil-based paints.  Choose and use the least toxic materials as is possible. Do your homework, read material safety data sheets and consult with health and safety personnel.

Avoid Using Powders

Buying art materials in liquid or wetted form can reduce or minimize the inhalation hazard.  Powders, whether hazardous or non-hazardous materials, can often irritate the throat, cause noses to run and cause eye irritation if there is not proper ventilation in the studio. Keep dusts down by ordering wet clay vs dry and liquid dyes instead of powdered dyes.

Minimize Spraying

Most aerosols spray cans contain a flammable propellant that helps to dissolve or suspend the substance that is being sprayed. Propellants used today include hexane, acetone, ethyl acetate, butane and more.

Aerosol spray cans produce a mist of small droplets that can more easily enter the lungs by inhalation. These fine particles of mist often remain hanging in the air where they can be inhaled for several hours. An odor may be detectable or not.

More often that not, paints can be painted on with a brush vs spraying. It is better to chose a brushing or dipping technique instead of spraying.