Ever since primitive hunters created cave
drawings tens of thousands of years ago, artists have used their work to
understand Nature. Whether they are painting the landscapes of New Mexico like
Georgia O’Keefe, drawing political cartoons like Richard Wilson, publicizing
hemp by driving around in a biogas bus like actor Woody Harrelson or writing
about ecological disaster like John Wyndham, artists influence the way we see
the natural world. Since they are used to experimenting with and transcending
the status quo, artists have an important role in provoking environmental and
As Huey Johnson, founder of the Resource Renewal
Institute, has said, “The urgency and importance of the message to restore
health to the environment needs to be carried in every possible form of media
and communication and art is one of the most powerful languages humans have ever
Unfortunately, many of the activities engaged in by artists are,
in themselves, a danger to the environment, not to mention the health of the
artists and those they are seeking to influence. Artists use many of the same
hazardous chemicals found in industry, often without adequate precautions and
Dusts, powders, vapors, gases and aerosols are easily
inhaled. For instance, lung damage can result from silica or asbestos
present in dry earth clays. Organ damage can occur following inhalation of
solvent vapors and subsequent absorption into the bloodstream.
Ingestion of hazardous substances can also occur through
oral contact with hands or tools used in art projects. This route of
exposure is an important concern with children, with their tendency to put
things in their mouths.
Lastly, skin contact with hazardous materials may result in
local or internal effects. Caustic substances or solvents can cause local
skin damage. Certain solvents can also pass through the skin into the
bloodstream, resulting in damage to other organs.
Exposure to toxic materials may result in either acute or
chronic illness. An acute illness may result from a relatively large
exposure over a short period of time. An example would be the
intoxication-like symptoms following inadvertent ingestion of toxic
solvents. A chronic illness may result from small exposures over a long
period of time, as in degeneration of the nervous system from exposure to
products containing lead.
Artists use many of the same hazardous chemicals found in
industry, often without adequate precautions and ventilation.
Young people who are still growing are especially
vulnerable, because they have a more rapid metabolism than adults and are
more likely to absorb toxic materials into their bodies. They have smaller
lungs and lower body weight, predisposing them to more risks. Also, they
cannot be depended upon to understand the need to carry out precautions.
So whether you are an artist, educator or parent, check
labels, refer to Material Safety Data Sheets and create good studio
management habits. And where possible, only purchase some of the 60,000 or
so art and craft materials certified by the Art & Creative Materials
Institute. All products in this program undergo extensive toxicological
testing before they are granted the use of certification seals.
In 1793 the painter Francisco de Goya contracted what is
thought to have been lead poisoning, which left him deaf and crippled. In
1970 the sculptor Eva Hesse died of cancer, probably caused by her use of
fiberglass. With the growing awareness of these hazards, artists can protect
their own health and that of the environment, while helping their audiences
to understand and protect the natural world.
Searching for Safer Art & Craft Materials
by Robyn Coburn in
Natural Life Magazine
Arts, Crafts, and Theater Safety
Theatre Ontario’s Theatre Safety program www.theatreontario.org
Center for Safety in the Arts, 5 Beekman St, Suite 820, New York NY 10038
Art & Creative Materials Institute, P. O. Box 479, Hanson, MA 02341-0479,
The Artist’s Complete Health and Safety Guide
by Monona Rossol
(Allworth Press, 2001)
Health Hazards Manual for Artists
by Michael McCann (Lyons and
Wendy Priesnitz is the Editor of Natural Life Magazine and a
journalist with over 35 years of experience. She used to be a stained glass
artisan, and has also authored twelve books.