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Some Letters Regarding Hazardous Materials

first published by Newsprint (Los Angeles Printmaking Society journal) in 1990
by Henry Klein, introduction by Dan Freeman

title page of the original article in 'Newsprint' from the summer of 1990


At the time the article was written, Jean Burg was President of the Society, I was Vice-President, and Dan Freeman was editor. All three of us were printmaking teachers trying to move our respective institutions in a more healthy direction. Dan became the next LAPS President, and I followed him. None of us are very active in the organization at the present time. I am pleased that younger blood has put out to pasture. Dan was a master lithographic printer at Gemini G.E.L. for 11 years. He has been co-developing a non-toxic studio in North Hollywood after suffering severe damage to his eyes as the result of an accident at Santa Monica City College’s screen-printing facility where he had been teaching. I arrived at my interest after developing a solvent sensitized asthma in the early 1970s related to screen printing fumes. In the early 1990s, I helped the Finish Society of Graphic Artists to develop a bibliography on health and safety.

In 1989 Newsprint put out a call for stories from our membership, dealing with the problem of hazardous materials in printmaking studios. From our 300 plus members we received only six letters, but these six responses epitomize the risks or dangers that we encounter in modern day printmaking. John Froines, Director of the U.C.L.A. Occupational Health Center, drove the point home during his lecture on the toxicology of the chemicals used in printmaking delivered at the CAPS Print Symposium. Cal Print ‘90 at Occidental College (See Henry Klein’s article on the lecture). Namely, many of us have already used enough chemicals to poison us many times over.

 After the grim lecture, everyone was frantically talking about the measures they were now going to take to protect themselves from these newly identified carcinogenic enemies. What type of gloves they were going to buy the next day? What kind of solvent mask? I was particularly startled to learn how many printmakers wear very little protection, use no protection, or even worse, use the wrong protection when they work. Those printers working in pollution safe environments were definitely in the minority. We as a group are in jeopardy. We can no longer be unaware, uneducated, or deny the dangers we inflict on our bodies on a daily basis through the process of printmaking. How many precautions do you use? How many of you wear an acid fume or and organic vapor mask when you work in your studio? How many of you properly protect your hands from solvents and acids? How much solvent do you use? What is the least toxic solvent you can use for your work? What precautions do you take for the people around you? How well ventilated is your studio? How do you dispose of spent toxic waste?

How many of you consider living any longer than the next few years?

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, just modify our behavior to include an acute awareness of the health risks around us, for example we can use a water based citrus solvent such as BioT (…), a non-toxic lacquer thinner. Or diluted with water to function as a general paint thinner type solvent.

In addition you might switch from the old solvent-based serigraphy ink, with some 70 - 80% less toxicity, and it cleans up with water! If we open up our over-toxined eyes, we will see a safer future. It is time for us as a group to wake up and protect ourselves, our environment and our process from extinction.  DF



by Erika Kahn


After etching pretty steadily for about 15 years, I noticed quite suddenly Flu-like symptoms. It started with vomiting -feeling sick to my stomach, having headaches (which I never had) and very red circles under my eyes. This lasted about 10 days, sometimes more or less severe. I went to an internist for examination and blood tests and they all came out negative, he pronounced me healthy, nothing wrong that he could find. Did I imagine these symptoms? It all would calm down, probably because I was not always working. That this illness could have come from this exposure to my work never occurred to me.

One night I attended a yoga and acupressure class, and the instructor asked us to press various pressure points. I pressed those around the chest area, and screamed with pain, the instructor, versed in Oriental Medicine, said at once, ‘You are working with something very toxic - stay away from it.’ She advised me to flood myself with water, and drink, drink as much as I could. She then prescribed garlic capsules taken regularly about 7 to 8 times a day until I felt no further pain in those pressure points. I stopped the etching bath at once. My symptoms took approximately 1 1/2 to 2 months to heal. I asked another doctor what would have happened had I not stopped this work; she said that I could have looked forward to a severe case of Asthma.

I must admit I was quite careless. I loved the etching process and worked without gloves or mask. The ventilation was also not very good. I would advise anyone to work strictly under a ventilation hood, and a mask for added protection with gloves on the hands when immersed in the nitrate and water baths. One cannot afford to be careless. Wishing all printmakers much good health.



by Erin Jordan

What I really liked about screen printing was the puddle on the clean-up paper after the print was done. So I began making designs awash with solvents, rejoicing in the dissolved pigment floating on thepaper. After a while I noticed that I could work only about twenty minutes with mask and fan, and always outdoors before I’d have to leave the scene and ‘dry out’ for an hour or so. My three major symptoms were headache, depression and severe stupidity. Fresh air and vitamins helped clear it up for a while. When I finally stopped printing the depression left quickly, the headache lingered for six weeks, and I’m not sure about the stupidity. Since then I have no tolerance at all for solvents, cigarette smoke, martinis, gasoline fumes, etc.

But by then I was hooked on screen printing. Commercial water-base inks were not appealing so I began experimenting with inks and settled on a home-made base of soap and starch colored with Liquitex acrylic paints. This necessitated changes in mesh size so now I use a perfectly transparent polyester organza. Instead of pouring ink on the screen I put it on a 6-inch plastic squeegee and the screen barely gets dirty: sometimes I use a sponge instead of a squeegee for those watery half-tones I was searching for before I got sick. The soap in the ink makes cleaning extremely easy, almost unnecessary. It also permits ‘lifting’ or washing away ink from the print for a pleasing painterly effect.




by Julie Dodd Tetzlaff

I’m a 31-year-old etcher who recently suffered a severe illness, which forced me to totally change my work methods. Neither I nor my doctors can say whether printing was the entire cause of my illness, but we are certain that it played a significant role among the factors that made me sick.

I had thought that I was pretty safe in my printing methods. I’ve worn a respirator, with the ‘right’ cartridges literally 90% of the time I was working in any studio during the last seven years. I also always wore gloves when cleaning up and never used solvents to get ink off my hands. So when I got ill - and I was literally lying down for months - it became necessary for me to scrutinize my work habits.

In the process of figuring out how I could continue to print: whether in fact I could continue to print. I have become familiar with some valuable resources, both written and human, that are very helpful in addressing the problem of the health hazards facing printmakers. In this ongoing series of articles I hope to share the information I have already gathered as well as any new material that I receive.

Readers are invited to write in with both questions and information they would like to pass on. To begin let me give you a brief overview of some of the ways in which printmaking can be hazardous to your health. The health hazards can be divided into two major categories but the type of illness that they cause - acute illness and chronic illness. Acute illnesses are usually severe and have rapid onset.

They end in complete recovery, recovery with disability, or, in worst cases, death. Nitric acid burns of lung tissue or the upper respiratory tract are an example of acute illness. Chronic illnesses are caused by very small amounts exposure over a period of time. The symptoms come slowly, vary from person to person, and almost always mock other illnesses. Often by the time the symptoms become obvious, the damage is already irreversible. An example of a chronic illness is the skin cancer that can result from exposure to lamp black, an ingredient in many lithographic materials that is a known carcinogen.


in 1990 'nontoxic' practice equated to informed and careful use

of extraction systems, respirators, and protective equipment


But in order for any damage to occur, the harmful substances first have to enter the body. Chemicals enter the body in three ways: inhalation, ingestion and through the skin. In all of our work environments there are particles in the air, which we inhale unless we protect ourselves. Nitric acid gas, dust from aquatint box, pigment particles from dried inks and fumes from solvents are just a few examples of harmful particles which we inhale. These and other airborne substances can cause direct damage to the respiratory system. Depending on the substance and the amount inhaled, the damage can vary in severity from a scratchy sore throat to chemical pneumonia.

The same particles that are inhaled in the studio may also be ingested by artists who eat or smoke in the studio. Harmful particles may be ingested later as they stay on clothes and hands. Improper storage of materials (solvent in a beverage bottle, for example) can have disastrous results. The last way for hazardous substances to enter the body is through skin contact. Many printmaking materials contain certain chemicals that go directly through healthy skin. Once the skin is broken, which easily happens in working with sharp tools or just through repeated hand washing, many more substances can enter the body.

So what can we do to keep these chemicals out? Using proper ventilation, gloves and respirators that specifically block out the chemicals being used can greatly reduce exposure to harmful substances. I’ll write specifically about each of these in articles to come, but for now let me just say that in order to minimize health hazards it’s important to know your materials. If you’re working with a highly toxic material be aware of it. Know your trade name products. Because many trade name products contain harmful substances not listed on the label it’s better to avoid trade names. Existing laws do not require manufacturers to list all of the ingredients in their products. Manufacturers are, however required.

Another good home-made transparent base is sodium alginate, which has different attributes and different drawbacks. It is perhaps prettier ink but not as much fun to work with. Along with these inks the best papers are Index 140 for cheap and easy, Rives BFK 280, and Westwinds (the best-from the paper source in LA).

Every headache has a silver lining and to tell the truth I’m glad that mine led me along tis non-toxic route in screen printing. The printing part is a lot more fun than it ever was and I can also breathe whenever I want to.

Some companies prepare Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) with more detailed information on the hazards and the use of their products and the precaution that should be taken. Unfortunately, many MSDs are inadequate. There is mounting pressure for manufacturers to improve and update their MSDs so we may hope that in the future they will be more reliable. Also, art stores are starting to keep files of MSDs available to artists. Once you know what you’re using there are many excellent resources where you can find out how hazardous your materials are. Two reference books I recommend are Artists Beware and Health Hazard Manual for Artists, both by Michael McCann (Nick Lyons books, 31 West 21st Street, New York, NY, 10010.)

Much of the information in this introductory article may already be familiar to many readers. Future articles will go into detail on how to deal with the dangers of solvents, pigments and chemical sensitizers, the factors that may put printmakers at high risk. Readers may write to me at 200 Eureka Street, San Francisco, CA 94114.

Julie Dodd Tetzlaff often uses non-traditional methods in her printmaking. Currently she is investigating water-base materials. This article was first published in California Printmaker, and is reprinted with permission of the author.



by Tom Jennings

Did you ever forget your friend’s name? Where you are? What you are doing? Are you often headachy? Do your fingers get numb? Any of the above?

If you occasionally have symptoms like these and you can’t blame it on the ravages of advancing age (or even if you can) you may be affected by the toxic chemicals which you use in your artwork.

An experience similar to the above is recounted in an article in the L.A. Life Daily News of Jn. 14, 1985 written by staff writer Karen Menney about an artist / teacher who felt lucky to be alive, and who was then motivated along with other artists to testify before the Assembly Consumer Protection and Toxic Materials Committee in Sacramento.

As a result of this hearing California became the first state to pass mandatory labeling laws on all arts and crafts materials, and to prohibit hazardous art materials in public elementary schools. Governor Deukmajian signed AB 3438 and AB 3439 into law, which took effect in January 1986.

But what about you? Perhaps all of this information has not filtered down to you, or has not penetrated your noggin. Even though you may not have had any disturbing symptoms yet, you may be using stuff that is lighting a fuse on a time bomb that will lay you low.. You need to have viable alternatives.

The California Public Interest Research Group (CAL PIRG) took a measure before Congress in 1988 and helped to win a federal law mandating proper labeling of art supplies nationwide.

For the safety of you and yours, you are urged to support this group and receive information about their publications. Membership contributions by concerned citizens hire a staff of expert researchers who work for your protection.

For membership applications to tell you more, write or phone: CALPRIG, 1147 S Robertson BLVD. No 203, Los Angeles, CA 90035. (213) 278-9244



The Toxic Environment of Printmakers

by Henry Klein          - Series -

‘I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that we are all living longer. The bad news is that you (i.e. we printmakers) may not have the minds to appreciate the benefits of an extended life span.’ This was no stand-up comedy routine, but the opening remark of Dr. John Froines, Director of the enter fro Occupational Health of the UCLSA School of Public Health to the LAPS Cal Print ‘90 Symposium at Occidental College. As I cast my eyes about a largely middle age or older audience, many of whom have, for a generation or more been engaged in practices that may have compromised their future health, this was a sobering message and only the beginning of a lucid but, at times, frightening presentation. Froines began with a simple formula to help us understand the risks of toxins in our work environment. That model is:


To illustrate the difference between local and systemic effects he pointed to the contact irritation that solvents may produce (i.e. local effect) vs. the necrosis, central nervous system depression (i.e. systemic effect) that occurs when solvents are absorbed into the body. Further elaborating on irreversible effects, he indicated that they can be the ‘cumulative effect of many small insults to the body’, or as in cancer, as little as a single exposure to the toxin. In the latter case, there can be no tolerable limit of exposure.

Having outlined these general issues, Dr. Froines then turned his attention to specific toxins in the printmaking environment. He briefly passed over acids because of the more obvious nature of their effects while noting that hydrofluoric acid should strictly be avoided, as it is a proven carcinogen as well. He then addressed himself to solvents in ore depth. He described their nature, mechanism of entry into the body and effects.

They are readily absorbed into the body through the skin and lungs where the blood rapidly circulates them throughout the body. He characterized solvents as lipophilic hydrocarbons, i.e. readily dissolving into fatty tissue. Consequently, they accumulate in the fatty tissue of the body. Significantly, these fats include the myelin sheath and membranes of neural tissue. Narcosis, the resulting disruption of neural function, is readily identified as drunkenness and, not surprisingly, alcohol is a solvent.



Speaking to me earlier, Dr Froines suggested that in Scandinavia, where studies of solvent toxicity have been done, the results have been complicated by the high incidence of heavy alcoholic drinking amongst the subjects. He further speculated that this conjunction may not be serendipitous but the result of a desire to perpetuate the ‘high’ or anesthetic effect of solvent exposure in the workplace. Certainly, drinking amplifies and prolongs the effects.

With the cessation of exposure, most effects go away. But what are the long term effects of repeated exposure? Dr. Froines focused upon the regenerative capacity of various tissues in order to alert us to the chronic, and perhaps, irreversible effects of solvent exposure. Skin, the site of contact exposure, regenerates readily. The liver, the organ that concentrates toxins for elimination has a more limited capacity for regeneration. Neural tissues do not regenerate at all. While there is great redundancy in the neural system, it is not infinite and therein lies the problem.

He said that there is increasing evidence to suggest that solvent exposure contributes to premature aging of the nervous system and brain. Specifically, it is suspected of contributing to Alzheimer’s disease, lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), memory loss, Parkinson’s disease and peripheral nervous disease. In particular, hexane, one of the components of gasoline and of rubber cement thinner, seems to be associated with peripheral nervous disease.

Turning from the nervous system to reproduction he described reproductive hazards as those, which alter fertility, affect the ability to carry a pregnancy to term or cause birth defects. He offered the following cautions. No pregnant woman should be in contact with lead. Cellosolves present in photoresist, in some other grounds, in some plastisols, and in some lithographic lacquer bases, are rapidly absorbed by the body. In addition to the usual solvent related effects, they can cause birth defects. Toluene, toluol, and xylene xylol, volatile solvents present in lacquer thinners, and sued in solvent base screen inks affect the male sperm count and shape, menstrual function, and can cause miscarriages. I could not help looking for an acquaintance in the audience who was unable to carry a child to term until she ceased screen printing in her home.

Next, he directed our attention to carcinogens. Benzene (benzol) all but disappeared from the press rooms where it once was used as type wash, is proven to cause leukemia. Gasoline has caused renal cancers in animals. Chlorinated and fluorinated hydrocarbons have all been proven to cause cancer. Formaldehyde, present as preservative in many materials used by printmakers as well as many adhesives is a carcinogen for which there are no safe levels of exposure.



'Rhinoplasty', lithograph by Henry Klein

The final category of toxins of which he spoke were pigments. Having already spoken of lead, he called our attention to chromium and cadmium pigments, which are carcinogens as well. In the discussion that ensued, it was made clear that while these pigments are particularly dangerous when inhaled, they are not free from danger when in vehicles, particularly solvent based vehicles which can penetrate the skin carrying the pigment along with them.

Where airborne toxins are concerned, adequately constructed ventilation that draws the toxin away from the user are extremely important, particularly because users are notorious for their misuses and disuse of respirators and other protective gear. With respect for respirators, rating for the specific category of toxin you are using and proper fit are extremely important. He concluded by recommending Artist Beware by Michael McCann, as a general resource and for details about appropriate protective clothing and devices as well their fit.

It was a densely packed presentation concentrating upon the dangers to individual printmakers from the materials they use and remarkably informative for the time available for its presentation. But I would conclude by addressing larger issues than our own personal health. To individually protect ourselves from toxic exposure while venting toxins into the air, dumping them down the sewer or disposing of them in the trash, however small our individual use may be, is to make our individual problem an environmental problem. We have a social as well as a personal responsibility to seek substitution of more environmentally safe materials for may of those which we now employ and to seek new ways of working where that is not possible.

Those of us who teach or run shops have a further responsibility to insure that the environment in which our students and employees work is a safe one and to raise the consciousness of our students and employees so that they may develop habits of safe practice in their work that they will carry forth from our classrooms and shops when they leave. In the short run these are likely to be inconveniences but the community of artists has a history of adaptation to new technologies that have expanded their horizons and I am confident that we will find ways to work in a landscape of limits as well.



Henry Klein / Kleinprint  |  email: