“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.
Toxins at home and work
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 when I was offered the old system by my former employer to use in my “home office” I quickly refused.
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 what about my art materials?
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 event 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—often, as cats will do, tasting them—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.
ACMI, the Art & Creative Materials Institute, Inc.
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). ACMI-certified product seals (AP Approved Product and CL Cautionary Labeling) indicate that these products have been evaluated by a qualified toxicologist and are labeled in accordance with federal and state laws. Each product in the program undergoes extensive toxicological testing that covers both acute and chronic toxicity concerns before it is granted the right to bear the ACMI certification seal. The ACMI product certification program includes an on-going review of the latest scientific and regulatory information available to keep the program current. The program also includes a five-year review of product formulations to meet the requirements of the Labeling of Hazardous Art Materials Act. The standards for testing are stated on their website:
ACMI has a consulting toxicology team at Duke University’s Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, who review the complete formulas of products in the certification program. In this evaluation, the toxicology team take 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 Toxicologists must approve the formula of every color of every product and must approve every formula change. Safety is the only consideration. The toxicology team keeps informed of new scientific data on ingredients from government and private sources. Previously-approved ingredients have been banned and restrictions established when new developments have occurred. Cautionary labeling is required on products when appropriate. All products certified as non-toxic by ACMI are non-toxic for both children and adults because the Toxicologists base their evaluation on the use and misuse (such as ingesting a material) of the product by a small child.
Please visit the website to read about their organization and the processes of testing.
Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety, Inc.
In 2019 members of Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety, Inc. contacted me about this article with even more information and a comprehensive data and guide sheet for safe use of art and craft materials. This provides information on reading these labels as well as alternate ways in which materials may be used, even unintentionally—like paint dripped and dried on a floor, which becomes a powder dispersed into the air to be inhaled when it’s walked over. I’ve incorporated information into this article.
Your pet’s care first
While dogs are known to be less particular about what they eat, cats are still known to eat many strange things—we all know a cat or two who chews on plastic, for instance, and who will pick up any small object they can and run off with it. I’ve also found cats will drink water out of just about anything but their own water bowl, including your rinse water from brushes and finishes. In the years I’ve had a house full of cats and a house full of art materials, as well as a certain amount of home remodeling materials, they have or have attempted to sniff, taste, walk through or roll in just about everything, including expanding foam spray applied in a cubby hole behind my tub around my water pipes, which was hard to get to and smelled like acetone and crackled as it expanded, surely something that would make any cat squint and back off, but not Sophie who tasted it, told me about it, and ended up with a slight chemical burn on her lip but no poisoning.
Never presume your pet has common sense while curiously inspecting something new. What did they say about curiosity killing the cat? Just don’t leave your projects and materials unattended, and if necessary, lock your pets out of the area where you are working—yes, they will complain, but they will be safer for it.
In my studio
When you see all the photos of my cats among my keepsake boxes, for instance, where I’ve applied glue and paint and Modge Podge and paint markers and whatnot, those items are completely dry before my cats come near them. I’ve learned with my cats that their need to explore and to participate in what I’m doing far outweighs any sense of danger they may have at strange smells or substances. In addition, for all the years I’ve fostered cats my studio was also my “spare cat room” where my fosters, often tiny kittens, lived until they could mingle with my household or were adopted, and often these cats had no or little experience with living indoors and would explore everything fearlessly or roll up in a ball in some hard-to-find place for safety, so keeping the studio free of potentially toxic substances was absolutely necessary.
I could close the door to my studio but I have a process that I’ve worked out over the years where I can produce these things without my cats coming in contact with them and dropping cat hairs on wet surfaces. I let them play on the table and walk around and inspect the items and the closed jars of materials and the brushes and water. When they are bored with it all, I give them boxes to play in and they play and bathe and nap while I work. I restrict my work to one area so the boundaries are clear.
I also use lots of scrap paper and cardboard beneath what I do to catch drips and spills, and I can simply remove the scrap and add it to the paper recycling bin when I’m done with one activity and move on to the next. That way I’m sure my cats aren’t even walking through dried residue unless I’ve mopped a good bit of it up and it leaves only a stain.
It’s tricky and takes more time, but it’s worth the effort to keep from getting acrylic paints and adhesives on the paws and fur, and possibly tasting things. If there is a case where I can’t keep materials contained, such as when I make my block prints and need to lay them out on surfaces to dry, or when I am distracted by a complicated process such as printing t-shirts or framing, I do sometimes close them out if they persist in getting involved with what I’m doing. They don’t want to do something bad, they want to be with me, and I can’t punish them for that. But I do need to keep them safe.
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.
Keeping your pets from ingesting adhesives, even dried, in any way should be common sense but sometimes you apply adhesives and leave something to dry and walk away, or adhesives drip without our knowledge.
Adhesives, even “safe” old white glue or wheat paste you make yourself, are meant to bond substances together, and don’t assume they are diluted by digestive juices. Any commercial white glue is actually “polyvinyl acetate”, and while it may not be toxic you can’t assume it’s digestible. Wood glues have resins added and various other chemicals to make the bond tighter for the stress of bearing weight, for instance, or to be certain to hold the corners of a picture frame together. I will sometimes assemble my picture frames out on my deck instead of in my studio because it’s difficult to keep after the drips and smears of glue, and it’s much safer if my cats don’t come anywhere near it.
Some adhesive substances are intended to repel liquids and will form into a ball in the digestive tract which can cause a blockage, others can actually adhere to or collect in pockets in the digestive tract, neither of which is healthy for your pet. It’s difficult to keep pets out of what you’re doing—simply never let them come in contact with adhesives of any sort by keeping them entirely away from them while wet, and carefully cleaning up afterward.
You never know when one of your creative cats may have a sudden inspiration!
Twelve Common Sense Rules From Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety, Inc. (abridged)
I have included just this list with permission of the author, but I encourage you to read the entire ACTS Labels: Reading Between the Lies (PDF) for more information.
1. Ask questions when you buy products and services. Good salespeople selling good products have good answers. They also will have documentation to back their safety claims and will provide them to you. Get copies of this documentation including safety data sheets and other technical information.
2. If you need additional information, contact the manufacturer. The law requires manufacturers to put a telephone number on art material labels at which information about chronic hazards can be obtained. If there number is no number, or if the number provides only a recorded message rather than a person who is familiar with the product, be suspicious. For example, some companies refer callers to their own doctors or to Poison Control Centers who are unfamiliar with artist’s practices and that usually focus on acute rather than chronic hazards.
3. Investigate natural and biodegradable products with the same vigor that you would synthetic ones. Most natural ingredients have never been tested for chronic effects.
4. Choose water-based products over solvent-containing ones, but get their material safety data sheets (MSDSs or SDSs) to verify that the water-based products do not also contain significant amounts of solvents or other toxic ingredients.
5. If solvents must be used, get their safety data sheets. Choose solvents with the high Threshold Limit Values (TLVs) and relatively low evaporation rates (they evaporate slowly). See Appendix 1 in this book to interpret unfamiliar terms.
6. Choose shop and household cleaning products carefully because getting MSDSs or SDSs on these products may be difficult. Remember: cleaners that easily dissolve crayon or graffiti off walls are not just soap–they contain synthetic or natural chemical solvents.
7. Choose products which do not create dusts and mists to avoid inhalation hazards. If powdered materials or aerosol products must be used, use them outdoors or in local exhaust ventilation.
8. Don’t judge toxicity by odor. Some chemicals that smell terrible aren’t bad for you. Some odorless and some pleasant-smelling chemicals are killers. A good example is ozone, which smells like clean fresh air. Unscrupulous companies take advantage of this odor when they sell ozone generators as air-purifiers to people who are unaware of the toxic properties of this gas. And manufactures often use toxic solvents with almost no odor.
9. Listen to your body and watch for physical reactions in your students or family members. While your nose can be fooled about toxicity, it may be giving you good advice about your own personal allergies and sensitivities. Your body usually will provide symptoms that warn of sensitivities, irritation, and acute exposures to chemicals. However, your body is not likely to warn you about impending chronic illnesses from chemical exposures. These usually progress without symptoms until there is permanent and irreversible damage.
10. If you are pregnant, don’t use any product that will expose you to solvent vapors, toxic metal-containing dusts, or any other toxic material. Substances that do not cause any symptoms in the mother can still affect the fetus. Pregnancy is a period of time in which we should postpone taking art classes or else choose media that can be used safely. For example, pregnant painters can used water colors, acrylics, water washable oils, or other paint that do not require solvents.
11. Don’t adopt a highly hazardous lifestyle and blame your art materials for your problems. Smoking, drinking too much, or altering your consciousness with recreational neurotoxins is not recommended for people who also work with toxic chemicals. As an occasional expert witness in personal injury lawsuits, I can tell you that a poor lifestyle also can ruin your chances of recovering damages or obtaining worker’s compensation for chemical exposures.
12. Get professional advice about products and chemicals from people who have no financial interest in your purchases. Your local health department and Consumer Reports magazine are examples of such agencies. The New Jersey Department of Health has Hazardous Substances Fact Sheets on various chemicals which provide unbiased data (www.state.nj.us/health/). The non-profit corporation, Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety (ACTS), also can help you evaluate material safety data sheets, label terminology and ventilation needs. We provide free advice by mail, e-mail and telephone.
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I first published this article in 2012, and I’ve checked the sources and links and updated if needed every one or two years since then.
References in this article
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