Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 105, Number 3, March 1997
First published in Printmaking Today, Summer 2004, ISSN 0960 9253
Nowadays, it seems, we are reassured by "the science bit" in marketing. Products as diverse as shampoo and yoghurt drinks are felt to be so much better for us if they've been given the seal of approval by an advertisement-scientist in a white lab coat. It is doubtful that the item in question is going to do us any harm, but the science is comforting all the same. Ironic, then, that we are often so casual about genuinely harmful materials in our homes and workplaces, just because we’ve been using them for years without any apparent ill effects.
Over the last dozen years or so, in my practice as an artist, I would have used bucket-loads of nitric acid and assorted VOC solvents if I hadn't thought more about the science bit. I suppose I must have absorbed my dad's interest in chemistry (he was a science teacher in Frankfurt) and this joined together with a natural curiosity about the stuff of printmaking:
Was there an alternative to acids?
What do you get when you cross a lemon with iron chloride?
Can you etch with salt?
Image shows copper (II) sulfate anhydrous
For more on copper sulfate go to: tripatlas.com/Copper(II)_sulfate
It wasn't so much that I wanted to meddle with the history of printmaking, just some of its ingredients. We are preoccupied by healthy living and I wanted to apply similar principles to healthy working. Meeting printmakers like Keith Howard and Robert Adam who were already developing ideas and practice in line with safer printmaking, galvanised my own experiments.
A lot of my methods are well documented and widely used. As with all processes though, they are - quite rightly - open to questioning. When my complete system of Metal Salt Etching was due to feature in Keith Howard's publication The Contemporary Printmaker in 2003, I was presented with the opportunity to subject my methods to rigorous scientific testing at Rochester Institute of Technology, NY. I have always taken advice from scientists, but here was an opportunity to have the many benefits offered by this new approach to etching confirmed by two leading experts in environmental chemistry.
And here comes the Science bit…
Metal salt etching employs two processes for the range of metals commonly used in intaglio printmaking. The reddish salt, ferric chloride, is used to etch the warm-colored metals: copper and brass, while the blue salt, copper sulfate, etches the silvery metals: zinc, mild steel, and aluminum. Both these salts (FeCl3 and CuSO4) have been around for centuries but because they were often used in the same way as acids (and without the aid of a catalyst), their potential for etching had not been fully harnessed. Metal salts do not corrode metals by the destructive and harmful processes that typify acid etching; they in fact owe their etching ability to electrical attraction. The metal compounds that are dissolved in the salt solution elegantly and harmlessly remove the atoms of a metal plate.
Today we understand that this is an electrical kind of chemistry that is more akin to the workings of a battery than to the corrosive action of strong acids. Think of the rabbit in the Duracell ad: a battery on a full charge will give plenty of electrical energy while a weak or depleted one will result in a gradual deceleration. The difference lies in the strength of the electrical charge: the rabbit with the biggest charge keeps going for longer.
In 1997 I invented THE EDINBURGH ETCH, the catalysed version of ferric chloride, in which a small addition of citric acid literally dissolves the sedimentation of the iron salt; creating a much more potent, but safer mordant. This process has since been adopted throughout the printmaking world and etchers have likened its crisp biting characteristics on copper to Rembrandt’s (toxic) Dutch Mordant.
Now many printmakers know what lemons and iron chloride can do together.
Shortly after I published this research in Printmaking Today the electro etching expert, CEDRIC GREEN, noted that the Edinburgh Etch is ideal for etching copper but that a solution based on copper sulfate, The Bordeaux Etch, should be used for a safe zinc etch. And already, in the early 1990s, NIK SEMENOFF had been exploring copper sulfate based etching solutions. Intrigued by Cedric and Nik’s ideas, I introduced copper sulfate into my own research program. Trials showed that a straight copper sulfate solution makes a good mordant for zinc (but not for aluminum) but consumes a large amount of copper sulfate crystals.
I realised that once again the right catalyst would accelerate and improve the efficiency of the etching process. As before, I systematically introduced different ingredients to the process and monitored their effects, quantities, and by-products. I had a pretty good idea that due to its conductive effect in water, simple cooking salt (sodium chloride) might be the key ingredient. Most of my time was spent researching the perfect ratio of salt to sulfate. The addition of an exactly equal quantity of salt to copper sulfate dramatically increases the speed, quality and longevity of this new etching solution: THE SALINE SULFATE ETCH.
This solution now provides a universal etching bath for all three silvery metals: Zinc, Aluminum and Mild Steel, and will no doubt become an extremely useful method in the repertoire of printmaking. My students can’t get enough of The Saline Sulphate Etch and use it on a daily basis, and in my own work it enabled me to etch the large-scale aluminum sculpture Shatter-Ice. For anyone who loves the physicality of etching it is an exciting and satisfying process to use.
A few years ago, at a conference on nontoxic printmaking in Barcelona I met Cedric Green, inventor of The Bordeaux Etch, who wholeheartedly approved of the latest addition to the metal salt method. During the same event Eva Figueras presented evidence that Goya had been etching zinc in copper sulfate but, unfortunately for printmaking, metal salt etching, for a number of historical and technical reasons, did not become mainstream practice until today.
So it was that in 2003 I presented my complete research on the Metal Salt Etching system to the RIT chemistry professors Dr Paul Craig and Dr Paul Rosenberg, for final testing and assessment. Dr Craig took an empirical approach and together we etched plates under laboratory conditions, making sure that all relevant data such as plate size, etching times, mordant strength etc., were faithfully recorded. Dr Rosenberg never needed to visit the print studio. He took an analytical approach in which all variables and by-products of the chemical reactions were determined through chemical formulae and calculations. The results of both strands of investigation were then formulated into a safety assessment for Metal Salt Etching which is published in The Contemporary Printmaker and can also be found on this website (Art Meets Science).
The assessment states that:
In the past metal etching for the purpose of printing or art was typically done with nitric acid, which has harmful vapors and is extremely caustic...The Edinburgh Etch adds one new ingredient to the etching bath: citric acid. Etching...is much more rapid and reproducible than the original ferric chloride etch...The Cu2 will have a tendency to form a complex with citric acid…increasing its solubility. The hazards associated with the Edinburgh Etch are dramatically less than those associated with nitric acid. In fact it could be safely used in an open studio or laboratory.
The Saline Sulfate Etch is recommended for etching aluminum or zinc (or mild steel). In the absence of sodium chloride, a copper etch of zinc is characterised by high levels of insoluble hydroxides...which may clog the etching process, for reasons like those proposed previously for the Edinburgh Etch.
For the printer or artist both these systems are mild and much safer than the traditional nitric acid bath for etching of metals, especially if proper precautions are taken (i.e. no etching of aluminum with ferric chloride) and when exhausted materials are disposed of properly. To the chemist, these are very nice systems, which are highly complex...There is not much published information on these systems…All would bear some study from the chemical perspective…There does not appear to be any significant or major chemical hazards associated with the chemical processes employed here, although a reaction between aluminum and iron (chloride) could lead to explosive results.
Reaction diagrams produced by Dr Craig and Dr Rosenberg clearly show how the new metal salt solutions increase the electrical voltage that is present in a pure ferric chloride or copper sulfate bath. The simple addition of measured quantities of crystalline lemon juice (citric acid) and cooking salt (sodium chloride) respectively, produces an etching environment safer and more effective than the traditional nitric bath.
Ball-and-stick model of the unit cell of anhydrous copper (II) sulfate
For more on copper sulfate go to: tripatlas.com/Copper(II)_sulfate
And that's the science!
Not Dying For Their Art
Alicia P. Gregory
Odyssey, Fall 2000
The following article was published in 2000 and is reproduced here with the permission of the author and editor of Odyssey Magazine for the University of Kentucky, and Gerald Ferstman. Ross Zirkle died in 2007.
"Nobody should have to die to make art." That's the bottom line for UK (University of Kentucky) art professors Gerald Ferstman and Ross Zirkle. These devoted printmakers are creating non-toxic techniques to keep their craft alive. "Printmaking is part of the nature of man, the desire to leave an impression or mark that he was here," says Zirkle, an assistant professor who came to UK in 1997.
Toxic elements first seeped into the printmaking world with the invention of oil paint, Zirkle says. New, often hazardous, chemicals were needed to break down oil-based inks. Common household chemicals like turpentine and lacquer thinner (for example, nail polish remover) are among the more than 100 toxic substances used by traditional printmakers. Some of the known side effects from continuous exposure to these chemicals, many of which are carcinogens, include birth defects, central nervous system damage, asthma and emphysema, systematic poisoning of the lungs, liver, kidneys and heart, nervous disorders, skin eruptions and dermatitis, and damage to the mucus membranes and upper respiratory tract.
"My grandfathers were both pressmen for newspapers," says Zirkle. "One developed dermatology problems from handling inks and eventually died of cancer."
Ross Zirkle (left) and Gerald Ferstman at their metal press
As a research fellow at the Tamarind Institute at the University of New Mexico, one of the most prestigious lithography schools in the country, Zirkle worked with an artist who had cancer in an arm. "She told me that of the five women she had stayed in touch with for 20 years since they were in art school together studying printmaking, four had developed cancer," Zirkle says. "The ratio was too high not to suspect that it had something to do with what they were exposed to in art school."
"There's just too much evidence now to ignore the toxic nature of these chemicals," says Ferstman, an associate professor who has spent two-thirds of his 30-year career at UK developing safer printing techniques. "Some art programs have been fined heavily by OSHA and the EPA, and there have been lawsuits by students who've suffered nerve damage they claim was caused by their exposure to chemicals. It's a liability most schools aren't willing to risk anymore."
"A lot of schools are dropping printmaking altogether," says Zirkle, "or offering it only as a sub-line, not on the same par with painting or drawing."
Not many institutions can afford the expensive ventilation systems required by federal legislation, Ferstman says. "When I came to UK, we installed a ventilation system that was adequate for the acids we were using. Last spring the fire marshal came through and said our facilities were substandard for acids, and we could no longer use them. Fortunately, I'd developed a safe etching ground and am now using a salt etch that works well, so the program could continue.
The art of printmaking is really the art of process - a combination of artistic vision and chemical know-how. "Students look at printmaking as a kind of chemical laboratory of magical events because the process is so far removed from most people's knowledge of art," says Zirkle. "Printmaking uses medieval processes in a digital age, which just makes this stuff seem more mysterious than ever."
"Printmaking as we know it will change," Zirkle says. "In a few years you may see some Macintosh G4s lined up along the wall and things will be made digitally, but actually making a plate with your hands, involving yourself in the rhythm of running it through the press each time you pull an impression - that kind of experience will be lost unless something is done." "A press can be used for 100 years. You buy a computer, and it's obsolete in three," says Ferstman.
Not all artists and academics embrace nontoxic printmaking, say Ferstman and Zirkle. "At the most, 25% of schools and universities are using nontoxic techniques," Ferstman says. "A lot of people are still holding onto the traditional ways because they don't want to be re-trained. The older generation seems to feel the old ways are not so bad, it's just a matter of having the right facilities." Traditionalists aren't willing to invest the time to experiment with nontoxic alternatives, he says. "They'll use something that's more toxic, more dangerous, more of a liability, because they know exactly how it works," says Zirkle. "That's been a problem with the nontoxic movement in printmaking. A lot of products that came out were mostly hype, they didn't work well, and a lot of people bought them and got burned, and then they said, 'Well, this stuff doesn't work'."
"Artists have never been as concerned with their health as they are with the results of their work," says Zirkle. "The burden of proof for change has been difficult. Not only do Jerry and I have to prove that our stuff is safer, we also have to prove it works as well as the traditional ways."
Their research involves a lot of trial and error. "People want products; they want the science of success. They don't understand that sometimes you can work for a long time and learn things, but you don't come up with a product that's workable," Zirkle says.
The researchers are now looking for a water-based ink that can be used in all printmaking techniques and are experimenting with improving and adapting new non-toxic products. Zirkle's research centers on waterless lithography. "In traditional lithography, water is used to repel oil-based inks from the non-image areas of the printing surface. In waterless lithography the non-image areas are covered with silicone that will also repel ink," he explains. This isn't any fancy kind of silicone - it's the kind you buy at the hardware store to caulk your bathtub. "While I was at Tamarind, I became intrigued by the possibility of using water-based inks with the waterless printing process. Today we have a very workable system of ink and modifiers that provides a safe, economic and reliable alternative to oil- and solvent-based lithography."
Water-based inks print more detail than is possible with oil-based inks and are safe to use even without gloves, Zirkle says. And another important advantage is time. "Clean up is so fast with water-based inks (just soap and water) that you can often clean up and print the next run in the time it would have taken you to clean up one solvent-based ink run. This new, faster process allows more time for experimentation and more color runs, which should produce better prints which are actually cheaper to print." In four weeks, he says, his Beginning Printmaking students are printing color, a feat that with traditional lithography would take them up to four years to achieve.
UK printmaking teachers and their students discuss their latest works. From left to right: Emily Whipple, Teresa Koester, Ross Zirkle, Joyce Probus, Gerald Ferstman, and Helene Steene.
"When you teach printmaking to kids you've got to make it as user-friendly as possible," says Zirkle. "And they want results. They're paying tuition to make art, and they want things to work. The burden's on us entirely to be able to troubleshoot for all the problems 30 kids might generate."
But Ferstman says the students also generate useful ideas. "A lot of times they try things I wouldn't have even thought of doing, and they work. It's good that they see us experimenting with new materials and that that attitude transfers to them somehow so they understand a little bit about what research is."
Ferstman and Zirkle's work is supported by a network of like-minded artists around the world. One of their favorite collaborators is Nik Semenoff. "He's an inventor," Zirkle says. In addition to a number of novel rollers for printmaking, Semenoff created a salt etch - Ferstman's key interest - the first good alternative to using acids to do etchings. "This strong salt is a lot safer than acid," Ferstman says. It's not 100% non-toxic - after all, it has to eat through metal - but there aren't any harmful fumes."
He's spent the last six years developing safer etching grounds - a mix of ink and chemicals into which the image is etched. "In the summer of 1997, I began experimenting with water-based ink as a substitute for traditional etching grounds, because of their carcinogenic qualities and flammability hazards," Ferstman says. "This new ground could be applied to copper, steel, aluminum, bronze, iron, and zinc etching plates, with excellent results. The only problem was that removal required strong detergents and ammonia. By adding a commercial water-based silk screen extender that is set with heat, I was able to come up with a new ground that washes off with just warm water and dry laundry detergent." In addition to applications for etching, Ferstman has been able to adapt this ground for silk screen printing.
"I was in the first class to use Jerry's new soft ground," says Joyce Probus, a student who earned her bachelor's degree in fine arts last summer. "This process is a catalyst to getting down to the art-making as opposed to being inhibited by a lot of steps and chemicals."
Another Semenoff innovation - a way to use and reuse the backside of commercial aluminum printing plates - has allowed the UK professors to operate their shop at a fraction of the cost that other universities incur. "We are able to print from the backside of plates that we get at salvage for free. And when it comes right down to it - are our students producing as nice a print as students at other universities using premium materials? More often than not, our students are actually doing better because they don't have to choke on the cost of the materials. We give them as many plates as they want," Zirkle says.
And the UK students' work is often excellent, evidenced by the fact that they have been accepted into some of the nation's most prestigious graduate printmaking programs. "In the first waterless lithography class I taught at UK, we had three students get accepted in a national juried competition celebrating 200 years of lithography," says Zirkle. "Our students' work was shown side-by-side with the work of artists who have been the mainstay at juried competitions for twenty years. These were all first-semester students." In 1998 Zirkle's students had a ground-breaking opportunity - they printed lithographs for Ecuadorian artist Nelson Santos with water-based inks. Graduate, Helene Steene, says the way Ferstman and Zirkle teach is a source of inspiration.
"These teachers can bring ideas out of every individual and encourage experimentation." "A lot of process-related work is problem-solving, and there's a lot of problem-solving in all art-making," says Joyce Probus. "You learn to direct the process instead of the process directing you. I've never faced a blank piece of paper without ideas as a result of getting to work with these new techniques. It's been an excellent opportunity."
Alicia P. Gregory, Associate Editor
Lee P. Thomas, Photographer
Odyssey covers the latest research advances, innovation scholarships, and outstanding people that are part of the University of Kentucky's $300 million-a-year research enterprise.
Exposing Ourselves to Art
Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 105, Number 3, March 1997
The following article is reproduced with the permission of the author and EHP
Although visual arts - such as painting, sculpting, printmaking, and metal work - are often thought of as benign pursuits, artists and craftspeople work with a wide range of potentially harmful materials. Each art discipline has its own battery of hazardous substances. Painters often use aromatic hydrocarbons such as toluene and styrene, esters such as butyl acetate, ketones such as isophorone, and glycols such as butyl cellosolve and methyl cellosolve acetate. Sculptors are exposed to metal fumes and dusts, sand and rock dusts, and, if they use organic materials, biological dusts such as molds, anthrax spores, and wood dusts. Other hazards are found in printmaking, ceramics, glassblowing, fiber arts, and photography. Artists may be at particularly high risk because they are most often self-employed, and so work in a relatively unregulated environment. They also often have lower incomes and are unable to afford safety equipment such as ventilation hoods and respirators.
Every artist, it seems, knows at least one other artist who has had serious health problems related to the materials they use. For example, a ceramics teacher has silicosis and a collapsed lung; a painter has become hypersensitized to solvents and can no longer work with oil paints; or a potter and her young daughter have elevated levels of lead in their blood from applying and firing ceramic-tile glazes. Yet in spite of ubiquitous hazards in the arts, only a handful of industrial hygienists specialize in the health impacts of the artist's working environment. "The art community is so loosely organized that it's been difficult for agencies to identify it as a community that needs help," explains Gail Barazani, a former art teacher and environmental regulatory affairs specialist, and for 20 years the author of a column on health hazards in the arts.
Artists are a diverse group. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1995 about 233,000 Americans were full- or part-time professional painters, sculptors, printmakers, or craftspeople. Another 136,000 were photographers. These numbers, however, don't account for the many artists who spend hours every week producing art but support themselves at "day jobs," and so identify themselves as waiters, secretaries, or taxi drivers. Also excluded from the statistics are hobbyists, college students, art teachers, senior citizens in therapeutic art programs, and children. And many of these professional, amateur, and fledgling artists are at risk.
Although the topic is currently not well-studied, the hazards of fine arts have been recognized since at least the early eighteenth century, when Bernardo Ramazzini, the "father of industrial medicine," discussed occupational risks to stone carvers and painters. In his 1713 tome De Morbis Artificum Diatriba (The Diseases of Workers), Ramazzini described hazardous materials that continue to pose risks to artists today:
These afflicted artists depended on colors based on toxic heavy metals more often than their contemporaries, who favored earth colors based on harmless iron and carbon compounds. Prolonged exposure to these substances - including mercury, cadmium, arsenic, lead, antimony, tin, cobalt, manganese, and chromium - can promote the development of inflammatory rheumatic diseases, as well as chronic lead and manganese poisoning.
Large-scale studies of the environmental hazards to contemporary artists have been relatively rare. The very diversity that makes the arts population hard to estimate also makes it hard to study. "If you want to study factory workers you can go to the company or you can go to the union. It's not such an easy thing for artists," explains National Cancer Institute scientist Aaron Blair. Two NCI studies conducted in the mid-1980s, however, did find higher risks for urinary bladder cancer, leukemia, and arteriosclerotic heart disease among painters. "We went to two different places and found this bladder cancer excess, which seems pretty convincing, I think," Blair says. These maladies were linked to the profession of painter, rather than to any particular material, raising questions among some as to their validity.
Although the old masters were exposed to an impressive array of potentially debilitating substances, trends in modern art have put contemporary artists in contact with a much wider assortment of materials. Today's artists will employ virtually anything in their creations, from commercially produced paints to discarded household appliances to esoteric materials not previously available such as plastics, molten ceramics, and acrylics.
"There is no hazardous chemical that isn't being used in an art department somewhere," says Monona Rossol, one of the few industrial hygienists specializing in arts safety. Rossol, founder and president of the nonprofit Arts, Crafts, and Theater Safety Corporation, first became interested in the subject of art safety while an art graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. To support herself, she worked as a research chemist (she holds a masters degree in chemistry) and commuted between the two departments daily:
Industrial hygienists specializing in the arts, such as Michael McCann, report finding a staggering assortment of dangerous and often unlabeled materials in artists' workplaces. "In the last three [college-level] schools I inspected I found several quarts of cyanide electroplating solutions," McCann says. Combined with the acids printers often use, cyanide solutions produce hydrogen cyanide gas. "Now, you're talking about a slight accident and you can have a fatality within minutes." Ten years ago, on an inspection of a junior high school, McCann stumbled across a pound jar of uranium oxide. Prized for its brilliant oranges, uranium oxide was a popular colorant for ceramics and pottery glazes until it was banned about 10 years ago by the Atomic Energy Commission. Oxides of uranium and certain other colorant metals including arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, and nickel are known human carcinogens.
At least lead is an established hazard whose use and effects health professionals recognize readily. New and unusual materials are steadily entering artists' studios, and are surprising and sometimes confounding health workers. "Artists are always experimenting with new materials to get different effects, so the exposures are continuously surprising," says Shirley Conibear, an occupational health physician who frequently treats artists.
Artists are just as likely to find materials in a junkyard, in a lumberyard, on the beach, or in a hardware store, as in a traditional art-supply store. This diversity of sources and materials - often unaccompanied by instructions or labels - can make predicting exposures difficult. As an example, Barazani tells of an University of Illinois art department teaching assistant - an asthmatic - whose sculptures were constructed of used refrigerators that he sliced apart with an electric saw. Working alone one night, he cut into a refrigerator's coolant container, which sprayed him with Freon, triggering a near-fatal asthma attack.
Although this may seem like a freak accident, artists frequently put themselves at risk, some say because they don't hold the same healthy respect for materials as other professionals. "They're not your normal breed of people in industry at all," says Ted Rickard, health and safety manager for the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto. "They're always experimenting, which means you have people mixing two chemicals together to see what happens or running something through a bandsaw and twisting it at the same time to make an interesting shape."
Risks of Experimentation
It's this devotion to experimentation combined with a general unfamiliarity with safety procedures as much as the materials themselves that endangers artists. Whereas a chemist might take a clearly labeled bottle of hydrochloric acid out of a ventilated cabinet to work under a ventilation hood near an eyewash station in a well-ventilated room, a printmaker is just as likely to pour the acid out of an unmarked jelly jar in a stuffy basement:
"We know that chemicals are dangerous and the chemistry lab uses chemicals, but the perception is that art materials are not chemicals," McCann says.
Perhaps the widest assortment of dangerous chemicals in the arts are, in fact, found in the various types of printmaking; lithography (in which images are printed from drawings on stone or thin zinc or aluminum plates), intaglio (in which images are printed from acid-etched metal plates), photoetching (in which a photoresist is exposed to light), relief printing (in which areas of the plate, typically wood or linoleum, are cut away), and screen printing (in which a stencil is applied to a screen). Pigments include lead chromate, chromium, zinc chromate, strontium, and cadmium, all toxic metals. Printing equipment including plates, press beds, rollers, and slabs is cleaned with kerosene, chlorinated hydrocarbons such as trichloroethylene, and aromatic hydrocarbons such as toluene and xylene. Acids, including hydrofluoric, acetic, hydrochloric, tannic, phosphoric, and nitric acid, are used to etch plates.
Inadequate ventilation also can lead to overexposure to the solvents printers use, says Laurence Fuortes, a preventive medicine physician who often cares for members of the large Iowa arts community. Symptoms from these reactive compounds include burning eyes, nose, and throat; chest tightness; coughing; and asthma-like syndromes. In addition:
"One of the major concerns with solvent accumulation is the euphoric and neurotoxic effects," Fuortes says. "One person who was working in a relatively confined space screen printing actually did have euphoric symptomology from overexposure to solvents, a narcotic-like effect. He was getting drunk."
Precautions and Changes
Good ventilation, however, is the exception to the rule in the artist's workplace, and few facilities have been designed properly for art production, Rossol says. Professional artists often work in studios they've constructed themselves on limited budgets. Children are exposed to art materials in ordinary classrooms, rustic summer-camp craft huts, and their parents' studios, often the worst setting because of the dangerous materials adults sometimes favor. Hobbyists may work on the dining room table - perhaps while cooking or eating - or in makeshift storefront craft shops. And even college art students working in buildings built with art in mind often suffer the consequences of poor designs and outdated practices:
Like many schools, however, the School of Art Institute of Chicago has recently reworked its ventilation system, including rerouting the ceramics studio's exhaust directly out of the building rather than through the photography studio. Taking an even larger step is the University of Wisconsin - Madison, which is spending more than $3 million to reventilate its art department. The department shares a large building whose ventilation system recirculates the air several times before exhausting it. Although recirculation is more energy-efficient than using heated or cooled air just once before exhausting it, a recirculating system also spreads fumes and particles throughout a structure. Single-circulation systems are standard in chemistry departments. "It was designed inappropriately to begin with because no one knew about the hazards," says Jack Wunder, a University of Wisconsin facilities engineer. "They thought chemistry's a hazard, not art. That's a sad commentary, but that's the way it was in the '60s."
Even recently built college art buildings, however, often are designed more like office buildings than chemistry labs, Rossol says. However, according to McCann, the National Association of Schools of Art and Design now includes safety standards among its criteria for certification or recertification. Still, recirculating air-handling systems seem to be the norm rather than the exception. Many work areas lack eyewash stations and emergency showers. Students' studios are arranged in large communal work groups so that contaminants are shared as well. In a large California school, a single large space was divided into 65 cubbyholes by flammable curtains. The students, many of whom worked with volatile solvents, had decorated their areas with paper and cloth. "And you could see the cigarette butts on the floor," Rossol says. "It was an incredible [accident] waiting to happen."
Even the opposite approach - individual studios - can backfire. Realizing that many artists prefer to work and live in the same space, another art school - this one in Massachusetts - built a dormitory that included a combined studio, kitchenette, and sleeping area for each student. The unfortunate result for the students was 24-hour-a-day exposure to not only their own materials but those of other students, aggravated by the inadequate 300 cubic foot per minute bathroom fans installed as the sole means of ventilation.
At the least, the Massachusetts school duplicated the conditions under which many professional artists work. In spite of the risks, or more likely oblivious to them, about half of all artists work at home, and of those, about half work in living areas. That increases the chances of eating, touching, and breathing art materials, Conibear says. "There are all kinds of opportunities to contaminate themselves and [their] family that you don't have if you go somewhere to work." Home studios, she says, often place children in contact with materials - such as lead and other heavy metals - to which they are particularly vulnerable. "There have been a number of problems with people developing cottage industries out of their homes where they're doing these things in jerry-rigged situations, and they and their families have suffered the effects of overexposures," adds Fuortes.
Outside the Classroom
Unlike young adults, children are less likely to be exposed to art-materials hazards at school than at home, or worse, at summer camps where untrained teenagers working in primitive settings may supervise younger children working on such projects as making lead- or lithium-glazed drinking cups, McCann says. Most states publish lists of materials suitable for use in schools. The Labeling of Hazardous Art Materials Act of 1988 requires warning labels for materials that are not suitable for use by children and empowers the Consumer Product Safety Commission to obtain court injunctions against schools that purchase hazardous art materials for use in grades six and below. But although the act has improved arts-materials labeling, McCann says, many imported materials from countries with different regulations or from small-scale manufacturers may be labeled incorrectly. "They don't have the knowledge or the money to put into having a certified toxicologist evaluate the label. That gets expensive," he explains. "In a cottage industry, they may not be aware of the true hazard within their products," adds University of Wisconsin environmental hygienist William Deppen.
It is also possible that materials now thought to be safe for children will later be found hazardous. Rossol warns in particular of popular low-temperature modeling clays. Manufacturers of these brilliantly colored polymer clays have substituted as a plasticizer untested complex glycol ethers for the primary phthalate ethers (diethylhexyl phthalate or DEHP), which are now known to be animal carcinogens. The ethers are absorbed through the skin and, to a lesser extent, can be inhaled when the clay is fired. Such clays may also pose a problem, says McCann, because they may be used at home and fired in a family's oven that is also used for cooking. "If I could draw you the two sets of molecules, the DEHP and the ones they replaced them with, you would see how closely similar they are," Rossol says. "And yet since they have never been actually tested for long-term hazards, they can continue to label the product nontoxic."
In fact, Rossol says, very few dyes and pigments have been studied, especially organic chemicals. Rather than label those products - particularly those closely related to known toxic or carcinogenic chemicals - as nontoxic, she suggests a label that reads: "This pigment has never been tested for long-term hazards."
In spite of the protections afforded to children and improvements in product labeling, most artists work in an unscrutinized, loosely regulated world. Of the 4,000 or so workplace investigations that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's Hazards Evaluation and Technical Assistance Branch has conducted in the last 10 years, only two of those requested have been in the arts. The branch does, however, answer thousands of phone inquires each year, some of which come from artists, according to Assistant Branch Chief Rick Hartle. And although any nongovernmental business that employs more than one person is regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, that standard misses the bulk of artists, most of whom are self-employed, students, or amateurs.
Such people tend to fall through the cracks in the regulatory system:
Art-hazards experts have no shortage of suggestions for ways that the lives of artists could be made safer through regulation and education. Manufacturers could be compelled to test products more extensively and label them more accurately. Art-safety courses could become a required part of the curriculum of any program - whether elementary school, college, university, or craft shop - that provides instructions in the arts. Artists could switch to safer, if more time-consuming, materials and techniques. Printmakers, for example, could clean their plates with strong detergent rather than solvents. And just teaching painters to stop licking their brushes to a point could greatly reduce their ingestion of dangerous pigments. Arts colleges could limit access to studios to a reasonable workday, rather than encouraging overexposure with heavy workloads and strict deadlines, a practice Rossol likens to "hazing." All schools could be subjected to inspections by certified industrial hygienists trained to recognize the techniques, tendencies, and tools of artists. Schools could require their instructors to apply for permission to introduce any untested, unapproved, or newly invented material or technique to the classroom.
But if there is a single point that art and health professionals agree upon, it's that members of the arts community, including working artists, art instructors, and art administrators, need to make a great leap in their understanding of arts safety. Whether artists are willing to learn, however, is another question.
Perhaps, Rossol and Rickard suggest, artists have learned to shun safe practices as a badge of membership in the arts subculture. Rickard recites a litany of foolhardy practices he's seen in his institution alone: a visiting instructor who nailed a block of expanded polystyrene to the wall of the classroom and set fire to it so his students could see what kind of pattern the smoke made on the white wall; a faculty member found sitting in a large pool of mineral spirits, lost in thought; students using solvents, plastic resins, and epoxies in unventilated studios, although ventilation hoods are available.
"Artists are a very strange breed of people," Rickard says. "They tend to be quite anti-establishment, anti-authority. If the rules say do this, they'll do the opposite quite deliberately." Or perhaps artists feel that "it's a risk you're willing to take because you're excited by the materials and their potential," Barazani says. Or maybe "these artists are not casual with the materials they're working with because they feel they know them so well that they don't have to worry about them," Conibear says, "but rather they're mostly just ignorant and just haven't thought of it in that context."
The most compelling explanation may be a combination of a dangerous attitude and ignorance of dire consequences.