Petroleum-derived solvents when used indoors require the use of effective ventilation / local extraction
and a personal respirator with organic vapor cartridge. Today, there are many health-friendly alternatives.
The Toxicity of Solvents Friedhard Kiekeben
co-edited by: | JH Shaw | M McCann PhD | A Babin | C Randall | © 2012
V O C S o l v e n t H a z a r d s
(volatile organic compounds)
most petro-chemical solvents and their noxious vapor emissions
may cause infertility or birth defects
and should be considered potentially carcinogenic,
even if this hazard is not listed on the label, or in msds data sheets.
This is due to the likely presence of traces of benzene
and other powerful carcinogens.
Virtually all petroleum derived solvents and VOCs
are known neurotoxins, capable of
causing brain and nerve damage.
solvents pollute water and are very harmful to aquatic organisms
Organic solvents such as mineral spirit or white spirit
(broadly known as VOCs) are widely used in
traditional printmaking, printing, and painting,
and in the paints, coatings, and ink industries
argue that solvent use is steeped in history, but the refined petroleum
distillates that artists or house painters use in large quantities are a
relatively recent development. They are the products of industrial oil
production and organic chemistry - from the 1850s onwards - and
evidently cannot have been used by the old masters, as claimed by some.
Artists such as Rembrandt are thought to have relied on the use of
specialized soaps and oils for brush cleaning (for instance Marseilles soap), and the precious turpentine was used in moderation.
the 1960s there has been increasing medical evidence that most
petroleum derived solvents are toxic. This has been the basis of various
lawsuits brought by afflicted workers, for example in
the US railway industry. Over the past 20 years - and with little
publicity - there have also been various lawsuits regarding sickness
or injury resulting from solvent exposure in the field of painting and
decorating, in art schools (CAR/UIC), and in other fields such as road construction and printing.
in The Arts by Michael McCann.This Facebook forum is devoted to health
and safety hazards in the visual arts. Safety in the Arts welcomes
comments, links to websites, reports of incidents and safety concerns,
events, workshop and comments listings, etc. Click on image to access.
people using gloss paints and other VOC-based products for home
improvement are unaware of the severity of toxic exposure they may face
during a painting session. In many fine art painting studios solvents
are still used without any form of protection. Some printmaking
workshops dealt with the issue of solvent exposure through the
installation of ventilation systems. Others adopted alternative,
non-solvent based methodologies that now cover all major printmaking
areas. Many more are now in the process of moving from hazard
containment to the adoption of new methods that are safer. But the field
of domestic painting recently woke up to environmental awareness,
moving quickly away from VOC based household paint and solvents.
On the UICs Health and Safety in the Arts website, the safety experts Angela Babin, Michael McCann and Devora Neumark write about the much under-rated solvent hazards:
"Although some solvents are less hazardous than others, all solvents can cause toxic effects. There
are no safe organic solvents, only more and less toxic ones. All
organic solvents can affect the nervous system, respiratory system,
skin, eyes, and internal organs to some degree. Solvents are also implicated in damage to both the male and the female reproductive systems."
Source: UIC Health and Safety in the Arts Library
notion that organic solvents necessarily entail serious toxic hazards
is currently being challenged by the new bio-solvent industry and its
innovative research. Whilst most petroleum-based solvents are toxic,
many of the new bio-solvents are much less hazardous, especially in
aqueous solutions. In his new book Dwight
Pogue writes: 'During the last decade, a number of new patents have
recognized research in renewable bio-based and biodegradable materials
as replacements for the petroleum-based solvents that have been in
common use in a myriad of industrial applications (including agriculture
products, pharmaceuticals, food additives, biofuels, paints, coatings,
and cleaners). Many of the new, highly effective solvents, including
ethyl lactate, methyl soyate, and d-Limonene, are based on such food
stocks as corn, soybeans, and citrus fruit.' ('Printmaking Revolution', Watson-Guptill, NY 2012).
The dilution ventilation approach underlying expensive extraction systems may be seen as temporary and inefficient answer;
often local extraction is an additional requirement when using VOCs in a
professional setting. Toxicologists fail to agree on safe exposure
levels for solvents but insist that even small amounts of inhaled
solvent vapors can be harmful. As a result, over the past 20 years, safe
and reliable alternatives to solvent based methods have been
established in painting, and for all major printmaking disciplines and
are now being used in print studios around the world. Stanford
scientists found that the impact of solvent vapors on human health is
1000 times greater in an indoor environment, rather than outdoors. This
may well explain why ill health still occurs, despite the widespread
adoption of more or less elaborate ventilation systems in professional
National Toxicology Program
Most petroleum solvents are distilled from tar and oil
What is Tar?
Tar-products are derived from coal tar. Asphaltum or bitumen products
(sometimes also called tar) are derived from crude oil. All these complex hydrocarbons or PAHs are used in printmaking, and have been found to be carcinogenic.
A Cancer Study by the US National Toxicology Program:
Download the full pdf on the web site of the US National Toxicology Program: click here
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) Lithotene and Litho Tusche
Polycyclic 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).
Note: Carcinogenic = causing cancer | Mutagenic = damaging sperm and egg | Teratogenic = causing birth defects
Expert Advice on Solvents, Then and NowNumerous
solvents that were classed as 'moderately toxic' in older literature on
solvent safety are now regarded as 'toxic'. For instance White Spirit /
Mineral Spirits or Acetone have been re-evaluated by experts and are
now classed as 'toxic' and as potential carcinogens. Glycol ether, often
quoted as being a mere irritant and a necessity is also toxic, not only
in concentration but also diluted (e.g. in water-based paints and cleaning products).
Major innovations include:
Screenprinting Waterbased Methods, Safe Solvents
Etching Acrylic Resists, Metal Salts, Nontoxic Solvents
Collagraph + Monoprinting Acrylic Media, Nontoxic Solvents
Photo Etching + Photogravure Photopolymer, Intaglio Type
Relief Printing Nontoxic Solvents
Book Art Photopolymer, Nontoxic Solvents
Lithography Polyester Plate, Nontoxic Offset, Waterless
Printmaking Inks Waterbased, Oil-based and Water-miscible
made without toxic pigments or VOCs
Offset Printing Inks made from plant sources (soy and linseed oil), Safe Solvents
PAINTING Waterbased Paints | Improved Acrylics, use of nonVOC solvents,
Water-miscible Oil Paints
Nontoxic printmaking and painting methods utilize non-VOC solvents, resists, mediums, paints, and inks. Many traditional materials - many paints and printmaking inks - are also nontoxic.
For safety, users need to educate themselves about which kinds of
binder / solvent / and pigment (cadmium etc.) are toxic and which ones
Examples of Volatile Organic Solvents:
Examples of safe, non-volatile alternatives:
VEGETABLE OIL, OLIVE OIL
BABY OIL (?)
Examples of possibly safer, volatile non-petroleum solvents:
D-LIMONENE (orange oil)
SOYBEAN OIL SOLVENT
CORN OIL SOLVENT
selected commercial links:
zacryl / citrusdepot / vertecbiosolvents / Safe Solvents
SAFETY NOTE: NEVER INHALE CONCENTRATED VOC's!
concentrated VOCs when directly inhaled (including plant derived VOCs such as orange oil)
may cause lung damage or even death by asphyxiationD-Limonene
- Orange OilThe
active ingredient in orange oil, D-Limonene is a natural yet very
powerful solvent. It is possibly safer than many oil-based solvents, yet
precautions, ventilation and respiratory protection are needed. In concentrated form and vaporized it may
present a significant inhalation hazard; also it is highly flammable. If
using substantial amounts of pure orange oil, and over prolonged
periods work in a well ventilated area and use an organic vapor mask.
Most citrus based solvents utilize the power of this natural paint
thinner in aqueous solutions, and accompanied by other ingredients such
as soy oil and corn oil and detergents. Very high concentrations
administered in animal studies, (using laboratory rats), showed an
elevated cancer risk. I is not currently thought that these findings can
be applied to human health.
The bio solvent industry is leading research into safe solvent, paint and ink alternatives
companies supplying ingredients for bio-solvents and volume supplies for
industrial use (for instance in the printing industry) are Citrus Depot
and Vertec Biosolvents. Both of these firms conduct leading research
and development into nontoxic solvent technologies.
claim to be 'the world's most innovative supplier of sustainable
biobased solvents derived from corn, soybeans, citrus fruits and other
renewable feedstocks', and the company also pursue a carbon-neutral
policy. The company just announced a new product - its 'DLR blend', a
low cost and environmentally friendly replacement for d-limonene, which
is set to have many uses and applications in painting and printing.
Citrus Depot http://www.citrusdepot.net/
Vertec BioSolvents http://www.vertecbiosolvents.com/
Safe Stripping with Orange Zest Solvents
truly revolutionary solvent was formulated as an alternative to
petroleum-based turpentines and thinners. Made from 100% renewable
resources of soy, corn, and citrus, and is non-polluting,
non-carcinogenic, and bio-degradable. A teaspoon will thoroughly clean a
printing plate. DSolve will even strip dried ink or paint.' Dick Blick
Citrus-based solvents made for the DIY mass-market (available in hardware and DIY stores) include 'De-Solv-it' or 'CitraSolv'.
Image: Z*Acryl Product D*Solve
some fields, for instance in stone and metal plate lithography less
progress has so far been made towards the elimination of VOCs, although
more research could surely free Senefelder's medium from the hazards of
VOC use. As an intermediate solution some lithographic workshops (for example at Edinburgh Printmakers and WSU) have
gone beyond the dilution extraction approach and have installed
localized extraction systems that are designed to give increased
protection from VOC inhalation. The UIC Health and Safety in the Arts recommendation is that if local exhaust ventilation is not present, use NIOSH-approved respirators with organic vapor cartridges.
Stone Lithography Offset Printing - nontoxic
A number of studies provide statistical evidence for solvent toxicity:
Canadian study of 3726 men with cancer aged 35-70 conducted from 1979
to1985 also found that solvent exposure increased the risk of cancer
(the risk nearly doubled). Although Naphtha (White Spirit, Mineral
Spirits) is not classed as carcinogenic, it typically contains 3-4 %
benzene, a powerful carcinogen. Even mineral oil, often thought of as a
safe cleaning agent, may contain traces of toxic VOCs. Many solvents are also toxic if ingested. For example swallowing an ounce of turpentine can be fatal (Princeton University).
The universal solvent...toxic or not?
Ethylene Glycol, or glycol ether,
perhaps the most common solvent, is used in a wide range of products
from cheap acrylics and water-based paints to many domestic cleaning
products, such as window cleaner. Paint engineers praise the chemical,
often sold as 'Butyl Cellosolve', as
the ultimate agent for making smooth emulsions and fast setting paint,
without having to resort to the use of mineral spirits. But the health
hazards of this clear, highly concentrated, and very volatile liquid
have been underplayed and underestimated for years; recent medical
studies conducted in the UK on house painters and decorators suggest
Today, there is little doubt that the near odorless
glycol ether poses a much more serious health risk than often assumed.
The clear, sweet tasting substance commonly used as anti freeze, shot to
infamy in 1985 when some Austrian and German wine makers were shown to
have spoiled their wine with this toxic chemical. The incident prompted
one of the best known food scares in history and for about a year
Germans resorted to drinking beer instead of wine.
ether: 'It is known to cause: throat irritation, headache, backache,
kidney problems, oedema (swelling), necrosis (cell death). If swallowed,
can cause drowsiness, and slurred speech, possibly stupor, vomiting,
respiratory failure, coma, convulsions, and death.'
information and avoid products with significant concentrations of this
hidden VOC. Recent studies confirmed a direct link between glycol ether
exposure and fertility, both in men and women. According to the
University of Sheffield, (2008), house painters using water-based paints
are two and a half times more likely to suffer damaged sperm, low sperm count, and infertility than other men. 'Dr.
Andy Povey, senior lecturer in Molecular Epidemiology at the University
of Manchester, said: 'We know that certain glycol ethers can affect
male fertility and the use of these has reduced over the past two
decades. However our results suggest that they are still a workplace
hazard and that further work is needed to reduce such exposure.'
Original Article: 'Occupation and male infertility: glycol ethers and other exposures'
Occupational and Environmental Medicine. oem.bmj.com
2008, 65: 708-714
|Protection against low level VOC exposure|
there are many paint products that are marketed as ‘safe’, yet there
may still be harmful low-level VOC emissions, such as glycol ether.
Examples: many water-based paints, acrylic floor finish, some artist
acrylics, low odor, low VOC solvents, and printmaking resists.
a full organic respirator may be impractical for a day’s work we would
recommend wearing a disposable light weight mask that offers some
organic vapor protection. Dispose of the mask after a day’s work (about $
5 per mask).
3M™ Particulate Respirator 8514, N95, with Nuisance Level Organic Vapor Relief
The US National Library of Medicine's TOXNET information service recommends that for safe solvent handling, full breathing apparatus is required.
The case for non-solvent based methodologies in painting and printmaking is compelling:
- hydrocarbon solvents or VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) are neurotoxins
- short term exposure makes you dizzy and may even cause death
- long-term exposure can cause brain damage
- solvent use about doubles the risk of cancer
- solvents may harm a fetus during pregnancy (link)
personal experience, from nearly 25 years working in professional print
studios, confirms that solvent related hazards are not just a footnote
on safety data sheets but a real concern: solvents are a much greater
hazard than is commonly assumed. I know of many close colleagues who
regularly exposed themselves to solvent fumes, who later suffered
serious health consequences: including brain disease, kidney damage,
cancer, lung damage, nerve damage, and even sudden death.
illustration by Jennifer Shaw
The Labeling of Art Materials
Art materials are chemical products and the instructions and warnings given on a label should be carefully observed.
Europe, regulations were introduced in the 1960s to cover all products
available to industry or the general public in the EU. The basis of the
system is the classification of dangerous substances into the following
Any art material that falls into one of the above classifications must be labeled accordingly.
- DANGEROUS FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
label can also indicate the degree of severity by describing a product
as "Very Toxic" or "Extremely Flammable" for example, and most show an
accompanying symbol such as the skull and cross bones for TOXIC.
The three most common classifications found on art materials are:
HARMFUL FLAMMABLE DANGEROUS FOR
A label may also include "risk" phrases and "safety" phrases.
Example: DISTILLED TURPENTINE (WHITE SPIRIT)Distilled Turpentine would be labeled
Harmful and Dangerous for the Environment with the following risk phrases: * Flammable* Harmful by inhalation, in contact with skin and if swallowed* Irritating to the eyes and skin* May cause sensitisation by skin contact* Toxic to aquatic organisms, may cause long term adverse effects in the aquatic environment* May cause lung damage if swallowedand with the following safety phrases:* Keep out of reach of children* Wear suitable protective clothing and gloves* Avoid release into the environment. Refer to safety data sheets* If swallowed, do not induce vomiting: seek medical advice immediately and show this container or label
In the United States, products are also commonly labeled with the seals shown opposite. The AP seal indicates that the product has been tested by an independent toxicologist and is considered to be nontoxic. The CL seal is shown on products that are potentially hazardous, together with appropriate phrases such as:Warning: May produce allergic reaction by skin contactAvoid skin contactWash hands after useKeep out of reach of children
The US labelling system came about through the combined efforts of a number of associations and groups. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) has prepared standards for the safe use of art materials.
The Art & Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) provides labeling
certification and works to promote the safe and informed use of art
materials in North America. It should be noted that the EU and US systems of labeling use different levels and limits.
also be considered that although ACMI has done a lot to promote better
practices and improved health labeling, there may also be limitations
regarding their scope, and sometimes their objectivity. The institute is
funded by the materials manufacturers themselves rather than by a
completely independent body. It would be in the nature of this
affiliation that there are instances in which a completely objective
point of view about health hazards may not always be possible. In our
experience there have been instances in which products (for instance
certain tar formulations for printmaking) were given a nontoxic logo by
their makers, when in fact the label should bear a warning about cancer
and neurological hazards. It may seem that ACMI is not always able to
police its policies, and sometimes manufacturers print 'nontoxic' labels
on products that are known to cause toxic effects. It is best to
consult MSDS sheets in conjunction with product labels as these contain a
lot more detailed information. Even msds sheets can be misleading - or
may omit certain health information - so anyone that uses art and
printmaking materials, paints and solvents is well advised to consult
literature on art safety, or an independent resource such as this, to
get a fully rounded picture of potential hazards. If you know the
ingredients you wish to know more about, you can do a quick Google
search such as 'Toxicity of Asphalt'.
WARNING: ODORLESS THINNERS - DON'T JUST READ THE LABEL
petroleum industry has been marketing odorless thinners and solvents as a
safe alternative to conventional mineral spirits. As a consequence,
many artists, print studios and commercial printers may be using certain
products in the belief that the absence of a strong odor is a guarantee
of safety. This reasonable assumption is often 'confirmed' by the
manufacturer's use of 'safe' terminology and imagery on the can. Many of
these products can be just as harmful as the strong-smelling VOCs, and
may contain powerful neurotoxins - something which may not be explicit
in the labeling.
BEST PRACTICE: CHECK THE MSDS
want to be sure that a product is truly safe, inspect its MSDS (Material
Safety Data Sheet) - the recommendations may surprise you! For example,
contrary to its label, one common odorless thinner's MSDS states that a
NIOSH approved organic respirator and local fume extraction is advised
for the user's protection.
art materials suppliers, such as Dick Blick, provide Material Safety
Data Sheets in PDF format next to their products on the company website
so that you don't have to do the Googling for hidden hazards.
IS ACETONE A SAFE SOLVENT?
is sometimes quoted as a safe solvent because it is used extensively in
chemistry labs and goes into conventional nail varnish and remover.
Some artists and printers use it as a replacement for other solvents
such white spirit. Medical studies have indeed found acetone to be
significantly less neurotoxic than most petro-chemical solvents, but
certainly it is an agent that requires good caution in its use. Some
scientists argue that acetone is readily broken down and metabolized by
the human body, justifying its widespread use.
By contrast, The Tamarind Techniques Manual by Marjorie Devon quotes acetone as a known carcinogen (this may be incorrect), and as an agent capable of causing birth defects.
has the same ability to cause short term damage in higher concentrations
as more toxic solvents (it may cause unconsciousness and severe lung
damage!) and perhaps its greatest hazard is presented by its great
dissolving ability. Acetone is known to enhance and amplify the toxic
effects of toxic agents that may be dissolved by it, for instance nail
varnish ingredients such as toluene or toxic pigments that may cause
birth defects. Used in a traditional print studio acetone may exacerbate the carcinogenic effects of tar products.
WHICH ALCOHOL IS SAFE?
Isopropanol, and Ethyl Alcohol: Which is Safe? These three forms of
alcohol are very common solvents and de-greasing agents. We would advise
against the use of Methyl Alcohol (also used as fuel) as it is highly
toxic and is known to cause blindness. It is also added to Ethyl Alcohol
(Drinking Alcohol) as a denaturing agent to safeguard against abuse as
drink. Both Isopropyl alcohol and Ethyl Alcohol are sold as medical
â€˜Rubbing Alcoholâ€™, but only Ethyl Alcohol is recommended as a
relatively safe solvent, cleaning and and de-greasing agent. It is the
only alcohol that our bodies can readily metabolize, hence its
popularity in alcoholic beveragesâ€¦Cheers!
Friedhard Kiekeben, with special thanks to Chloe Randall for her invaluable assistance with research into VOCs; special thanks also to Michael McCann for editorial suggestions