“No art project can begin until someone tastes the paint water.”
Wise words from Kelly, who learned this from Cookie and fully embraced it, being second in line for any container of water I set aside or had on hand for any purpose.
And for that reason, years ago I began simply paying more attention to what my art materials were made of.
I’ve long been aware of toxins in household use, from cleaning products to gardening chemicals, as well as at work, and sometimes it was nearly impossible to get away from their use. Unfortunately for me I was a typesetter in the days before desktop publishing and for years worked in the room with the machine that developed the sheets of typeset film, regularly dunking my hands and arms into developer and fixative as well as breathing fumes. I did my best over a period of years to lessen my toxic intake by replacing the brand-name cleaners with traditional non-toxic cleaners like vinegar and hydrogen peroxide, and in the garden going completely organic. Eventually computerized typesetting requiring chemicals to develop film was replaced by clean (and quiet) personal computers and I was no longer breathing or bathing in chemicals, as well as dumping them down the drain or into containment barrels.
And I tried to stay as “green” as possible in all my purchases and in all products that came into my house as we’ve all learned about the risks of toxins shed from new carpeting and other flooring, cleaning and waterproofing chemicals, and treated lumber.
But one area in my life remained frustratingly fraught with either toxins or simply unknown content: my art materials.
While art and craft materials come in various degrees of quality, they are basically made by a small number of manufacturers all using the same ingredients for consistency and there isn’t as big a pool to choose from as, say, house paint or copy paper. I remember finding more and more choices in non-toxic wood stripper and environmentally-conscious packaging, but I still had no idea what went into the manufacture of my drawing paper or watercolors.
And while I am obviously in physical contact with my materials while using them, I’m a big human and can take a certain toxic load. My cats are in the same atmosphere, often in the same room and stubbornly close to what I’m working on, and are much more sensitive to substances in part because of their size and also because of their natural constitution that may not metabolize certain substances as done by other animals. And because they bathe they often get a double dose of a substance because they ingest it while bathing—more than once I’ve found colorful pawprints around the house!
So I set out years ago to determine what was in the materials I use, and what my options are for purchasing materials with known and tested ingredients.
Just as often happens with pet food recalls, the substance passes lab testing to certify it meets certain standards for use or content, but the lab testing only looks for what is intended to be there to meet those standards, not for other substances, and no one asks where an ingredient is sourced from or what its origins are. In pet food, children’s toys and in art and craft materials, dangerous amounts of toxins such as lead and ammonia have been found even though the product passed the testing for its intended use and quality.
Nothing is without its risks, but I am careful to source my art materials to companies who can trace the origins and contents of the materials they use, and I rely on an internationally-recognized certification organization. All materials I use in my house are “AP non-toxic”, certified that kids can eat or drink them and not be hurt by them. This is fine for me, and though there is no real testing for toxicity in animals for these products I follow the guideline for using supplements and medications intended for humans, following the standard for pediatric use. This is how I knew that dabbing a bit of tempera paint on the ears of my famous black kittens would not give them a dose of anything toxic while I’d be able to tell them apart for the sake of their individual health.
This testing is done through a consulting toxicology team at Duke University Medical Center, Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, through the Art & Creative Materials Institute, Inc. (ACMI). The standards for testing are stated on their website:
“…a consulting toxicology team, led by the primary Toxicologist…who review the complete formulas of products in the certification program. In this evaluation, the Toxicologist takes into account:
- Each ingredient and its quantity
- Possible adverse interaction with other ingredients
- The product’s size and packaging
- Potential acute and chronic harm to any part of the human body
- Possible allergic reaction
- How a product is commonly used and misused
- U. S. national and state labeling regulations.
The Toxicologist must approve the formula of every color of every product and must approve every formula change. Safety is the only consideration. …”
Please visit the website to read about their organization and the processes of testing.
Some common-sense, and some not so common, considerations
We’ve all been using art materials since we were babies, right? So we know all about how they should be used and kind of take them for granted—and that can be dangerous with any substance. The ACMI website also offers hints and guidelines about use and storage of art materials that we might be surprised to read.
For instance, we think of tempera paint and clay as wet substances, yet we often purchase them in a dry form to be mixed with water or another substance to activate them. Dusts of any sort can be irritating to asthmatics and people with respiratory issues, and no doubt the miniscule sinuses and lungs of cats and small dogs. Not all dusts are toxic, though, but you still can’t make assumptions—even though tempera paints have pigments in addition to the powdered base, they are not toxic, but certain clays can be in powdered form. Common-sense approach is to be careful with all of them.
And a habit we should have from other household materials, but how many of you do this? Fill a baby food jar with paint you’ve mixed and label it with what it is. I’m guilty! It’s a good idea to always label substances you’ve moved to another container even if you think you’ll always know what they are, and art materials are no exception.
Sure, we’ve all read about the artists who went a little crazy or who grew ill or died from toxicity from the pigments in their paints: cadmium and lead being the two most famous. Where pigments are concerned, most products no longer use the original natural pigments, many of which were toxic even to adults, but it’s still good to know what’s in the products you use for yourself and all living things in your environment. Read about how paints are made, including the substances used for pigments, at Handprint.
Mr. Sunshine grew bored with supervising me and decided to get a little more involved with what I was doing. Not to help me work, mind you, he is a supervisor. He decided to taste one of the puddles of watercolor I’d mixed and watered down to use for what I was doing—one good reason to make sure all your creative materials are non-toxic!
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