The Hidden Hazards Of Art

May 01, 1990 7 min read
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After three months of suffering, she found a doctor who at last made sense of her misery. He was an expert on environmental allergies, and he asked her to describe what kinds of activities she had been involved in recently. He listened as she described the stuffy, cramped studio in Rome, and how she and 15 fellow artists would work there for six hours straight and then wash the oil paint from their hands and brushes with turpentine.

He told Lowins that it was no wonder she was ill. “You’ve poisoned your entire system with toxins,’' she recalls her doctor saying. He explained that the common oil paints and turpentine she used were highly dangerous. Every time she had taken a breath or gotten paint or turpentine on her skin, the toxins in the materials were absorbed into her body. After a certain point, her body could no longer handle the accumulation. She recalls the metaphoric description the doctor used to help her understand: “You can only put so much coffee in a coffee cup, and then it can’t hold any more coffee and will not be able to function as a cup.’' Lowins gave up painting for a year, and her health finally returned to normal.

Research conducted over the last 10 years has shown that artists need to beware of the materials with which they sculpt, paint, print, spray, and solder. And it’s not just the stuff on the palettes of professionals that is a problem. In the early 1980’s, the Center for Safety in the Arts, in conjunction with state public-interest and consumer-affairs groups, documented the use of toxic art materials in school programs all the way down to the preschool level.

As the CSA researchers probed further, they discovered that both students and teachers were becoming ill because simple precautions weren’t being taken. For example, they were suffering from chemical pneumonia after inhaling the fumes from cadmium-containing silver solders; asthma, from breathing pottery kiln gases; and brain damage, from silk-screen printing solvents and solvent-based inks. They were being poisoned by lead-based glazes and developing severe skin allergies from the chemical solutions used in photography.

In the mid-1980’s, several states responded to the startling reports by passing legislation that requires the labeling of hazardous art materials. Then, in 1988, Congress passed a national labeling act, which requires warning labels on hazardous art materials. The law, which will become fully effective next fall, forbids manufacturers from distributing products that are unnecessarily dangerous for use by children in 6th grade or below.

Recently, some states and school districts have developed committees to write art-safety manuals and compile a list of materials that should be banned from use. But mostly, art teachers are left alone to make the difficult decisions about how to carry out the goals of their curricula without putting themselves or their students at risk.

Lowins’s doctor advised her not to even try. “He thought it would be too dangerous for me to be around art materials all day,’' she recalls. But art wasn’t a hobby for Lowins; it was her life.

So instead of giving up, Lowins got smart. She was fortunate to encounter an instructor in the fine arts department at the University of Wisconsin who, she says, was “incredibly aware of art hazards.’' The instructor helped Lowins change her habits, find information about potential hazards, and look for solutions. “From that point on, I have tried to find out all the potential problems with any art material I have ever considered using with my students or with myself,’' Lowins says. “The vast majority of things are fine, but there are also some materials which are in every art teacher’s cabinet that are extremely hazardous if used improperly.’' For instance, spray fixatives are commonly used on chalk, charcoal, and pastel drawings to keep them from smudging. But Lowins has heard of a case in which a student became permanently brain damaged by spraying his drawings with a fixative in an area that had no ventilation.

Now, Lowins is putting her knowledge into practice at the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago, where she is in her second year of teaching K-12 art. “Right off the bat, when I work with little children, I do completely nonhazardous projects,’' says Lowins, who also remarks that she never runs out of ideas. Instead of buying instant papier-mache mixes and powdered tempera (both of which create dust, which can lead to respiratory problems), she uses liquid paints and wheat paste. She prefers nontoxic, oil-based pastels to chalk-based pastels because no dust is created, and the final work does not need to be sprayed with a fixative.

With her high school students, Lowins wanted to introduce more complex projects. She has a special place in her heart for jewelry making, since that is what inspired her most in high school. But during the heating processes involved in metal-working--such as soldering--toxic fumes are emitted from the metal and the flux that is used to protect the metal. If the work area is not properly ventilated, the fumes can be extremely dangerous. Lowins remembers that her own high school art teacher was frequently ill. “She had a stroke when she was 28 and pneumonia and bronchitis all the time. And she was the one to do all the soldering for the kids,’' says Lowins, who also recalls that the room did not have adequate ventilation.

So, before Lowins even thought about introducing a jewelry-making unit in her curriculum, she spoke with the administration about the school’s facilities. “I said that a ventilation system would need to be installed before I teach it. The administration said, ‘Find out how much it costs and we’ll do it.’ Well, it was something like $4,000. But the administration felt that it was important and acted with extreme speed. They just did it,’' Lowins says with a smile. The same year, the school also spent more than $10,000 on a ventilation system for a darkroom so that the art faculty could teach photography without concern.

Not all teachers are blessed with an administrator who is willing to allocate money for ventilation. Many art programs wind up last on the school’s agenda.

But even with limited financial resources, teachers can create safe, ful- filling art experiences without sacrificing artistic integrity, according to Michael McCann, executive director of the CSA and an expert on art hazards. “For children under 12, it is a matter of eliminating hazardous materials,’' he says. “But it’s not as if we’re saying, you can’t do art.’' The California State Department of Health Services has approved more than 2,000 art materials primarily for use in grades 1-6.

When working with secondary students, though, McCann’s motto is: “If you can’t do it safely, then don’t do it.’' The presumption is that older students are more mature and can carry out safety precautions. But, McCann points out, no matter how carefully students handle certain hazardous materials, if the room is not adequately ventilated, they will be at risk. And adequate ventilation does not mean cracking open a window. “What type of ventilation is needed depends on what you’re doing,’' he says. “If you are using rubber cement or permanent markers, a window exhaust fan is sufficient.’' But if the class is oil painting or silk screening with solvent-based inks, the room would need a ventilation system that the school probably could not afford, McCann says. Instead, the teacher should substitute acrylics for oils and use water-based inks to do the screen printing.

Ideally, art teachers should know the potential hazards of their materials. The problem is that most are not as knowledgeable as Lowins. They receive little or no formal training on safety issues in their preparation programs. “Right now, I can’t think of one college or university that offers, let alone mandates, a course in art safety to art education majors,’' McCann says.

Consequently, many teachers un- wittingly expose themselves to potential hazards, unaware even that they should be concerned. For Lowins, it was really luck that opened her eyes. “I’m almost glad that I got sick because now I know what to stay away from,’' she says. “I feel like I’ve been armed with knowledge that is important for my students to know. I wish my art teachers in high school had known what I know now. It wouldn’t have made me stay away from any materials I have used, but it would have made me approach them completely differently.’'

--Mary Koepke

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as The Hidden Hazards Of Art


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