Your Paints May Contain Toxic Chemicals. Here’s How to Avoid Harming Yourself and the Environment
Photo by Jenna S.
Artists are often quite knowledgeable about the compelling feats they can achieve with paint, but they aren’t always aware of what their paints are made from. From oils to acrylics to watercolors, some paints contain toxic chemicals that are potentially harmful to humans and the environment. And among those artists who are aware of these risks, many don’t know what they can do to prevent them. The good news is that painting has come a long way from the days of lead pigments and turpentine. And, with some knowledge and a few simple strategies, artists can paint healthily into old age.
Below, we share some of the key health and safety issues pertaining to painting, and ways to avoid them.
Know what your paints are made of
Oil paints are essentially made of two components: pigments and a vehicle; acrylic paints are composed of pigments, plus a vehicle and a binder. Vehicles are the liquid part of the paint that holds the pigments in suspension, and binders act like cement, allowing the pigments to stick together and form a paint film.
In oil paints, the vehicle and binder are one and the same: highly refined vegetable oils such as flax (which the paint world calls “linseed”), safflower, poppy, and walnut. These oils dry slowly through oxidation, creating a hard film of paint when they come in contact with air. A skin forms over the paint surface, while the paint underneath continues to harden over time. Used alone, oil paints don’t release any chemicals into the air as they dry. But, if you’ve added solvents or mediums containing petroleum distillate to them during the painting process, their harmful contents will evaporate into your studio space.
Acrylic paints contain the same pigments as oils, but their vehicle is acrylic polymer emulsion, and their binder is acrylic polymer. When they dry, the components of the vehicle evaporate—meaning that water, propylene glycol, and ammonia are released into the air. Some of the commonly added acrylic mediums also release formaldehyde as they dry.
Be aware of toxic pigments
Paint and materials.
The American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) labels that appear on artist materials will tell you which products are dangerous. They’ll also list unsafe ways to use them, such as spraying, inhaling, or ingesting.
Manufacturers’ websites (like this one) also publish information about individual pigments and their known toxic effects.
Your safest best, however, is to think of all of your paints and mediums as potentially harmful, and to treat them equally. Paints labelled non-toxic are considered safe for humans, but are not necessarily safe for the environment. Propylene glycol, for example, is safe enough for use in the food and cosmetic industry, but has a disastrous effect in aquatic environments, meaning that pouring acrylic waste water down the drain is damaging to waterways.
Make your studio safe
Implementing a few simple procedures can turn your studio into a safe place.
Since all acrylic paints and their mediums (and many oil mediums) release dangerous chemicals into the air as they dry, ventilation is key. The solution can be as straightforward as opening a window, but if you regularly create large works and use a lot of paint, installing a ventilation system (or renting a studio with a system in place) is a good idea.
Oil painters shouldn’t work around open containers of turpentine, mineral spirits, or citrus-based cleaners. Solvents evaporate with exposure to the air, and are known to cause a host of physical and neurological problems when inhaled repeatedly over time. Instead, open your solvents only when you need to clean your brushes, and buy more brushes so that the solvents can stay closed for most of the painting day.
Solvent-covered rags also release dangerous particles into the air as they dry. By removing them from the studio at the end of the day, you’ll avoid walking into bad air the next morning. The rags can be hung outside for reuse or stored in a tightly-lidded, metal container until you can dispose of them properly. If they have oil on them, make sure that you wet the rags with water. Oily rags generate heat as they dry and can spontaneously combust if they’re crushed together in storage.
Another simple safety measure is to wear gloves when you paint. Nitrile-coated gloves keep paint, solvents, and mediums from being absorbed into your skin, and they have the added benefit of keeping your hands free of dried paint, which can be very hard to wash off. You can buy comfortable gloves with a breathable back and coated palms and fingers from any garden or workwear store.
A universal studio rule is to keep food and drink out of the studio. That sounds like it should be easy to adhere to, but most painters do at least have a coffee cup in the studio. The key is to know what’s on your hands before you touch it, and to always hold the cup by the handle instead of the rim. Mindfulness will help you to avoid consuming chemicals with your coffee. Washing your hands often is another simple and effective preventative measure.
You should also avoid spray-painting or sanding your paintings indoors. Inhaled pigments are particularly dangerous and impossible to remove once they’re in your lungs, so it’s best not to make them airborne unless you have a spray booth and an appropriate safety mask.
And lastly, an often-overlooked solution to a toxic studio is to find safer alternatives to problematic materials.
Instead of using oil mediums and solvents with warning labels about the dangers of inhalation, try using only linseed or walnut oil to dilute your paints, and common vegetable oil to clean your brushes. Oil paints don’t give off gas as they dry, so these changes would effectively eliminate painting as a source of indoor pollution.
Both oil and acrylic painters can also find alternatives to dangerous pigments, such as paints that look and behave like the real thing, but use safer pigments and cost a fraction of the price. Most manufacturers sell alternatives to lead, cadmium, manganese, cerulean, and more. Check the tubes and find a pigment that has the color you love, without the warning labels.
Follow best practices for disposing of paint and materials
Studio workshop of artist Marc Desgrandchamps in Lyon, France, 2016. Photo by Catherine Panchout/Sygma via Getty Images.
Painting generates a lot of waste, from used paper towels or rags to pigments suspended in solvent or water, and it’s important to dispose of these as hazardous waste—it’s the key to being a responsible painter.
All paint, regardless of medium, contains the same pigments, which means that acrylic and oil painters—including those who use water-mixable oils—need to save their paint sludge and rags, and bring them to special disposal sites. Nothing should go down the drain or into household garbage where it will eventually find its way into the water system.
This sounds like a lot of bother, but it’s actually not. Reclaiming paint sludge is as simple as finding a container with a good, tight lid and bringing it to a chemical disposal site; many cities and municipalities list these online. They also often make it free and as convenient as possible to drop off waste, in an effort to keep toxins from being improperly dumped.
To collect oil pigment from your solvent jar, you just need gravity. Let the jar sit undisturbed overnight, and in the morning, carefully decant the clean solvent for reuse, and scrape the sludge from the bottom of jar. Store the sludge in a sealed container that can withstand corrosive chemicals, and add to it whenever your solvent becomes too dirty to clean your brushes.
If you’re cleaning your brushes in vegetable oil, you’ll have to wait longer for the sludge to settle, but it will eventually drop to the bottom. You can use another cleaning jar of oil while you wait.
When your sludge bucket is full, bring it to a hazardous waste collection site and label it as “artists’ paint pigment.” If you use paints with cadmium, lead, cobalt, or other dangerous pigments, put that on the label, too.
Artists who use acrylic paints can also save their paint sludge, but they need to use different methods to remove the sludge from their water jars: evaporation or flocculation. Evaporation is slow, and involves waiting for the water to evaporate out of the container, leaving the pigment at the bottom for collection. Flocculation is quick. It uses aluminum sulfate and hydrated lime, two readily available gardening amendments (typically used to improve soil), to make the pigment particles clump together for easy collection.
Disposing of paint rags is as simple as bundling them into a garbage bag labelled “paint rags, contains cadmiums”—or whichever pigments should be specially noted—and dropping them off with your pigment sludge.
Making the switch from being uninformed to educated about your art materials will change your practice, and your studio, for the better. Not only will you take control of your studio space, you’ll help to preserve the environment beyond its doors.