Lithographic lime stones carry no toxic risk aside from the obvious lifting hazard. Many of the various volatile chemicals that are applied to the stone surface, however, are very toxic.
In the general public there is little notion of the very significant health risks inherent in the medium. Insiders in the printmaking profession know that traditional stone lithographers have a greatly increased risk of contracting cancer, and of suffering through lengthy periods of illness - even of dying prematurely as a result of the insidious toxic exposure that daily long-term lithographic practice can entail (see article 'Not dying for their art'). The recently published 'Tamarind Techniques Manual' by Marjorie Devon lists 19 carcinogenic substances that are used regularly (see list below).
The inventor of the process Alois Senefelder, who developed the method to commercialize the printing of musical scores (think Mozart's music) was already aware of unpleasant tar fumes and possible health risks of his invention, so as a caution he termed the process 'Chemical Printing'. Beware: in this method your are dealing with harsh chemicals, not just benign drawing materials. This original term was soon replaced by the term 'Stone Printing' or 'Lithography' by Parisian artists and printers who were enchanted by new creative possibilities and the prospect of making fortunes...and so the emphasis shifted away from the known hazards of chemistry to the romance of drawing on stones. Drawing on paper is very safe, so why should drawing on stones not be?
According to the 'Tamarind Techniques Manual' 19 carcinogenic substances are used (with extensive safety precautions) in Tamarind's lithographic practice: Acetone | Asphaltum Gum Etch | Ammonium Dichromate | Anco Litho Wash I and II | Asphaltum | Blanket Wash | Denatured Alcohol | Shellac Solution | Lacquer Thinner | Lithium General Purpose Grease | Mineral Spirits | MS (Shellac Solution) | Naptha | Paint Stripper | PN Red Developer | Spray Paint Enamel | Talc
Today, thanks to the work by innovators in lithography such as George Roberts and Nik Semenoff the entire vocabulary of lithography, including subtle crayon marks and earthy reticulations, can now be very successfully replicated in other media such a Polyester Plate Lithography, Waterless Lithography (which is still evolving), and perhaps surprisingly also in Water-based Silkscreen and in Intaglio Type. In most of these media the porous surface of a stone is substituted with a slightly rough transparency which allows for the same subtlety of detail and mark-making.
Rather than printing from the imaged surface directly, an intermediate photo-exposure process is often used to transfer the image to the printing plate. This replaces the dangerous chemical processing necessary in stone litho, and ensures that the printing substrates are stable and able to print larger editions. In essence, artists have adopted the same approach pioneered in the offset printing industry, where the imposing but temperamental lithographic stones (that are unsuitable for large-scale industrial use) were replaced with grained metal plates and then photo-mechanical image transfer over a century ago.
Anecdotal and medical evidence suggests that long term practitioners of stone lithography are prone to contracting various forms of cancer. Already by the early 1990s it was understood that a multitude of measures was required to practice Senefelder's method with any reasonable degree of safety. The manual 'Making Art Safely' co-written by Merle Spandorfer, Deborah Curtiss and Jack Snyder M.D., and first published in 1993, recommended that three levels of protection were needed to protect the lithographer from harmful vapors:
1) individual respirator
2) a general dilution ventilation system &
3) additional local fume extraction at any source of airborne contamination,
including the lithographic press.
Only a combination of all three of these measures would suffice in safeguarding against the highly volatile, corrosive, and reactive chemicals needed to process stones. The Tamarind Institute confirm the necessity of these requirements in 'Tamarind Techniques', by Marjorie Devon': 'Two types of ventilation are necessary for a workshop in which toxic materials are used: a high quality air-exchange system and local exhaust hoods.'
But even today this type of comprehensive protection is found only in the most safety conscious lithographic studios, such as Tamarind. Some less safety-aware educational institutions and print shops may fall short of the need to educate their students sufficiently about hazards and possibly don't meet requirements - or are unaware of the need - to install effective local extraction to remove all toxic VOCs. Some also do not provide respirators where needed, or maintain a 'stonewalling' attitude towards progressive nontoxic methods and non-hazardous process substitutions. In some instances students are willfully put at risk out of fear of change.
Out of concerns over public health, the fields of science, toxicology and industry have made massive advances towards the goal of complete elimination of toxic VOCs from consumer products:
Today, the emphasis has shifted from hazard management to hazard avoidance.
In Stone Lithography pure nitric acid is poured onto the stone
during processing. Often this is done without the use of
extraction or use of a respirator, exposing the artist directly
Art schools should not ignore contemporary health-requirements by asking for certain traditional media - for instance Stone Lithography - to be exempt from what is now believed to be good and safe practice. Many of the materials that were classed as 'suspected carcinogens' in the 1980s have since been re-classed as being 'known carcinogens' - agents that are known to cause cancer - and their use is no longer recommended. Amongst these are most petroleum derived solvents and the various tar products utilized all across traditional printmaking.
From left to right: Tar spreading in road construction; the industry is currently switching to non-tar alternatives to help protect the health of their workers. / A typical tar/asphaltum based hard ground solution / a tar ball found on a beach / An illustration of typical polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons - benz(e)acephenanthrylene, pyrene anddibenz(ah)anthracene. (Wikipedia) / (right) Lithotine and Litho Tusche
aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), also known as poly-aromatic hydrocarbons
or polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, are potent atmospheric pollutants
that consist of fused aromatic rings and do not contain heteroatoms or
carry substituents. Naphthalene (White Spirit | Mineral Spirit) is the simplest example of a PAH. PAHs
occur in oil, coal, and tar deposits, and are produced as byproducts of
fuel burning (whether fossil fuel or biomass). As a pollutant, they are
of concern because some compounds have been identified as carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic (WIKIPEDIA).
Is it time to leave the Stone Age?
A few years after the article about Ferstman and Zirkle was published, Ross Zirkle sadly died of cancer. Alarmed by the obvious hazards but still determined to capture the qualities of lithographic print, more and more artists are turning to a totally new system of lithography which replaces stones with polyester plates. The offset industry too has introduced safe solvents and plate processing chemicals, and the green offset printing industry (using safe inks made from soya oil and other natural sources) has made huge advances and is poised to overtake petroleum-derived printing in the marketplace.
Polyester Plate Lithography
Polyester Plate Lithography is an excellent example of how a completely nontoxic chemistry using acrylics is not only possible, but a much practiced reality - thanks in no small part to the groundbreaking research carried out by George Roberts at Boise State University in the late 1990s. Many safety conscious lithographers are also experimenting with Nik Semenoff's WATERLESS LITHOGRAPHY which, although not yet fully VOC-free, also offers the benefit of enhanced safety compared with the traditional process. The offset printing industry was first in adopting polyester plates as a lithographic medium, and waterless silicon-based printing is poised to become a new standard, offering improved safety and ease of use while maintaining the highest quality.
To learn more go to: POLYESTER PLATE LITHOGRAPHY
Orange Oil: A revolution in safer solvents
Twenty years ago, many solvents such as "odorless" thinners and turpenoid seemed like the safer solvent substitutes of the future, but more recent studies have shown that the neurotoxin safety record of these products is nearly as poor as the one for aromatic petroleum-derived spirits. Fortunately, we now have a much viable alternative to petro-chemical solvents in the increasing range of solvent products derived from D-Limonene, or orange oil. Two decades of research into this powerful "new" solvent has shown that it has far superior safety credentials when compared with its petroleum-derived cousins.
Many companies are now capitalizing on the hidden potential of orange peel by producing safe citrus solvents on an industrial scale. In 2002 the aircraft manufacturer Boeing was able to replace most of its petrochemical solvents with D-Limonene based alternatives, and many other industrial fields are poised to follow suit.
Other, equally promising safe solvents include the soy and corn oil-based solvents and oils that are increasingly being adopted by the commercial printing industry, both for cleaning and for ink manufacture.
Lithography: Its Past, Its Future
The intrinsic dichotomy of grease and water is the principle behind lithography, a fact which explains why, traditionally, the medium has been so closely linked with the grease loving, but toxic petrochemical solvents. It is perfectly conceivable that all the harmful mineral spirit based solvents of lithography such as lithotine, acetone, stone wash out, drawing tusche etc., can be substituted with safer alternatives such as citrus solvents, ethanol, and detergent solutions. In my estimation, a few years of dedicated research could easily attain what some believe to be unattainable: the goal of safe stone lithography. This would certainly be in keeping with Senefelder's intention for his magical new process of 'Chemical Printing'.
Johann Alois Senefelder,
Inventor of Lithography
Born 6 Nov 1771, Died 26 Feb 1834
'May my invention become known throughout the entire world by benefiting mankind in manifold ways through exquisite (printed) goods. May this only ever serve purposes of refinement, but never be abused for purposes of evil. May the almighty father grant this! May the hour be blessed in which I invented lithography!'
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.