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UIC Health in The Arts Library
Organic Solvents / Making Art Safely
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
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) 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 Now
not all their solutions are as safe as claimed!
Two 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 new, and possibly safer, solvent technologies.
Vertec 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,may have uses and applications in painting and printing.
Citrus Depot http://www.citrusdepot.net/
Vertec BioSolvents http://www.vertecbiosolvents.com/
'D-Solve': 'This 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.
Image: Z*Acryl Product D*Solve ( a pioneering product made by Mark Zaffron, now unavailable)
Citrus-based solvents made for the DIY mass-market (available in hardware and DIY stores) include 'De-Solv-it' or 'CitraSolv',
...some low-cost brands contain petrochemical solvent additions (!).
"New research shows that the sperm of men who work as painters and decorators is likely to be of poorer quality. This is due to their exposure to chemical solvents known as glycol ethers in water-based paints and other substances used in their trade.
The scientists, from the universities of Sheffield and Manchester in the UK, published their findings in the BMJ (British Medical Journals)- journal of Occupational Environmental Medicine. The researchers examined the working lives of 2,118 men across the UK in an attempt to assess how environmental work factors, particularly exposure to chemical substances, affected male fertility. The research took place in 14 fertility clinics in 11 cities across the country.
The research showed that men working with glycol ethers have a 2.5-fold increased risk of having high numbers of sperm with low motility (swimming ability) compared to men who are not often exposed to the chemicals.
Painting and decorating may be harmful to male fertility
2 June 2008
Appeared in BioNews 460
New research shows that the sperm of men who work as painters and decorators is likely to be of poorer quality. This is due to their exposure to chemical solvents known as glycol ethers in water-based paints and other substances used in their trade.
|Protection against low level VOC exposure|
Today 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.
Although a full organic respirator may be impractical for a days work we would recommend wearing a disposable light weight mask that offers some organic vapor protection. Dispose of the mask after a days work (about $ 5 per mask).
3M Particulate Respirator 8514, N95, with Nuisance Level Organic Vapor Relief
A label may also include "risk" phrases and "safety" phrases.
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.
It should 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
The 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
If you 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.
Responsible 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?
Acetone 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.
Acetone 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?
Methanol, 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 âRubbing 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
Hazards of Acrylic Paint Products
Safer Paint Strippers
Exposure to some common paint stripping products
can be very hazardous, and even fatal.
OSHA lists several safer alternatives
on the following page:
Fatal Incident involving Paint Stripper | OSHA
SAFETY NOTE: a small number of acrylics now carry a note warning of a possible cancer hazard
this may be related to a formaldehyde content /
other common, but frequently undeclared, chemicals found in acrylics include glycol ether, ammonia,
various low-level solvents (NMP, NEP, etc.), or the polymerization catalyst Triethylamine (TEA)
which is known to cause eye damage in long exposures.
always ensure airflow, (use fans and open windows), and wear lightweight organic vapor mask
with active carbon filter
Nontoxicprint: a private, not-for-profit and academic Research Resource on Printmaking |
advice on materials and suppliers, brands and company links,
is solely given for artist's evaluation, education
and research purposes, and is non-commercial