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The Healthy, Safe Studio

Information on How to Keep a Healthy, Safe Studio and How to Avoid Toxins in Your Art Materials

This article addresses some of the health and safety concerns associated with the use of artists' materials and ways of protecting yourself and your studio from potential hazards.

Helpful Terms

Molecule: The smallest unit which contains all the properties of a given substance.

Solid: Matter composed of closely packed molecules; a solid will retain its shape.

Fume: An airborne particle with weight and mass, formed when a molecule escapes the surface of a solid or concentrated acid, like nitric acid.

Dust: Airborne particles with weight and mass that are generally bigger in size than fumes. Dusts within the respirable range (.01 to .10 microns) can create a health problem. These cannot be seen with the naked eye but are visible in a beam of sunlight through a window.

Liquid: Matter composed of molecules less closely packed than a solid; a liquid will not retain its shape.

Gas: Matter composed of loosely packed molecules. It has neither independent shape or volume, but expands to fill most any container. It will not settle on the floor of a room or on the bottom of a container, even if left undisturbed.

Vapor: A gaseous substance formed when fast-moving molecules in a liquid escape from the surface. Evaporation describes the movement of molecules from liquid to gaseous form. Solvents, like turpentine, form vapors as they evaporate when exposed to air.

Mist: Concentrated vapor. Anything that agitates or particulates a liquid creates a mist, such as spray cans, atomizers or airbrushes.

Helpful Generalizations

Vapors and gases are molecules. In terms of safety, there is no mask made that will trap a molecule the way dusts can be trapped. A respirator works against a molecule by absorbing it and reacting with it chemically.

Vapors and gases are often confused with fumes. The important difference is that vapors and gases are molecules whereas fumes are particles. Because fumes have weight and mass, they can be filtered.

Unlike gases, fumes will settle on the floor of a room if left undisturbed.

How Toxins Enter the Body

Toxins are unstable, poisonous compounds produced by microorganisms and capable of causing disease. While some materials essential to making art contain toxins, you do not have to cease working with them to maintain good health. You may, however, want to change some of your working habits. Toxins enter the body in three ways:

Skin Absorption. Our skin has two layers, the inner dermis and the outer epidermis. The epidermis is the skin's defensive barrier and protects the body from some toxins. Solvents and acids can destroy the epidermis by causing burns, irritation or infections. Chapped or broken skin allows toxins into the bloodstream and throughout the body. Some solvents can be absorbed even by healthy skin. We are not always aware that absorption of toxins is occurring, as some solvents are good painkillers. These react with the central nervous system and confuse our natural warning system.

Inhalation. Most airborne chemicals enter the body through the respiratory system. They are absorbed by our lungs and into the bloodstream where they can affect all parts of the body. While the body has some defenses for fighting the entry of these substances, some toxic chemicals still get through. Solvent vapors absorbed by our lungs, for example, can cause damage to lung tissue the way direct contact with a solvent can damage skin.

Three simply studio practices greatly reduce solvent inhalation:

  1. Keep solvent containers closed when not in use;
  2. Use the smallest amount of solvent possible; and
  3. Refrain from eating, drinking or smoking when using solvents.

Ingestion. A surprisingly large number of artists ingest small amounts of material regularly while working. Habits such as biting your fingernails, pointing brush tips with your lips or eating, drinking and smoking while working expose your mouth, throat and stomach to toxins. In addition to small ingestions, there is also the occurrence of larger accidental ingestion. This happens when materials are transferred to unmarked containers and mistakenly confused with similar ones holding food or beverages. The victims of unintentional ingestion are often children or unsuspecting household members.

Determining Potential Toxins

To determine if any products which you use regularly are toxic if inhaled or absorbed through the skin, read the product's label carefully. If you work regularly with acids, solvents or materials that create dust, you should consider using personal and studio protection. The most important precaution artist can take is to not eat, drink or smoke while working. This alone decreases exposure dramatically.

Studio Ventilation

The best overall protection is provided by proper studio ventilation. This does not mean installing an air conditioner or simply opening your window or door to let in fresh air. These practices, called uncontrolled ventilation, may make your work environment more comfortable but do not prevent exposure to toxic fumes, dusts or gases. Controlled ventilation removes toxins from the air and prevents them from contamination your workspace. There are two types of controlled ventilation: dilution ventilation and local exhaust ventilation.

Dilution ventilation brings in clean outside air to dilute contaminants and then exhausts them to the outside. This system is only effective for filtering small amounts of toxins. It can be achieved with a simply window exhaust fan, making sure your fresh air source comes from behind you and contaminated air exits in front.

Local exhaust ventilation captures dusts, fumes and vapors at their source and exhausts them before you can breathe the air they contaminate. If you use large quantities of hazardous materials, you may want to invest in a local exhaust system. This system involves a hood to collect the contaminants, ducts to carry them outside and an exhaust fan to remove them from the exhausted air. While more expensive to install, it is less expensive to maintain.

Personal Protective Equipment

If you cannot ventilate your studio, or your need for ventilation is only occasional, a respirator should be considered. Respirators come with removable cartridges that must be matched with the contaminants you are trying to filter. All cartridges eventually lose their effectiveness and have to be replaced. To be safe, change cartridges every two weeks or after eight hours of cumulative use. If the contaminant can be smelled while wearing a respirator, a cartridge change is long overdue or the respirator does not fit properly. It is unwise to use a respirator with a toxic chemical that cannot be smelled. Consider two factors when purchasing a respirator.

One, buy one that is approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and health (NIOSH).
Two, make sure it fits properly. Men with mustaches or beards cannot wear respirators. If it doesn't fit properly, a respirator is virtually useless. To test for a proper fir, block the air inlets, inhale and hold your breath for 30 seconds. The respirator facepiece should collapse around your face. If it does not, you have an inadequate fit. Respirators should be cleaned regularly with soap and water, and air-dried. To avoid contamination, a respirator should not be shared.

Dust Masks. Good quality dust masks will filter most dusts, including dry pigments. (Artist who work extensively with phthalocyanine pigments, which are very light in weight and finely ground, should consider using a respirator.) Dust masks are not recommended for use in the presence of dangerous fumes or vapors.

Protective Creams and Gloves. Skin contact with potentially harmful materials can be eliminated or reduced by using protective cream and gloves. Protective creams are either water- or solvent-resistant and provide a protective barrier on your skin while you work. Nitrile and neoprene gloves provide further protection when working with strong chemicals. When purchasing gloves, be sure to read the label carefully to ensure they are resistant to the specific materials you are using.

Studio Safety

Setting up a safe studio means not only minimizing exposure to potentially dangerous materials, but also preventing fire and other physical hazards. By following these simple practices, potential hazards in the studio can be avoided.

  1. Read the storage instructions on the labels of your materials carefully, and follow the manufacturer's specifications.
  2. Mark each container with the date of purchase, so older inventory can be used first.
  3. Keep on hand only what is needed for a relatively short period of time. This is most important with combustible and flammable materials, like solvents.
  4. Store solvents and chemicals in their original containers or in approved storage containers with labels. Never store them in open containers or next to a heat source, such as a vent, radiator, furnace or stove. In summer, take the necessary precaution of storing solvents in a cool environment.
  5. Avoid storing anything in breakable glass containers.
  6. Pigments or powdered chemicals that come in paper or plastic bags should be transferred to plastic containers to avoid tears in bags that can release dust into the air. Be sure to label the new containers with their contents.
  7. Equip your studio with a fire extinguisher and know how to use it.
  8. Avoid storing potentially harmful or flammable materials in hard to reach areas and keep all labels facing front. This reduces the risk of shattering or spilling containers during retrieval.
  9. Acids or other corrosives should not be stored on high shelves where they could break or spill, splashing their contents throughout your storage area.
  10. Store your heavier materials near the floor to avoid spills or leaks during removal.
  11. Never store food with your studio materials.
  12. Segregate reactive materials from each other in storage to prevent explosive or potentially harmful substances from intermixing.
  13. Store solvent-soaked rags or papers in covered metal waste containers until ready for disposal.