Health and Safety

An overview of concerns about substances used in oil painting and list of resources

Topic List

General Comments

Virgil’s Comments: 

We use toxic or hazardous substances every day that we must be careful not to ingest: gasoline, lubricants, and coolants for our vehicles, cleaning products for our homes, paints for our homes, drain cleaners, and so on, all of which are used for their intended purposes with sensible caution recommended. Carelessness with any of these things carries the potential for undesirable consequences. Likewise with art materials. It’s simply a matter of using our brains.

The worries over toxicity of lead and cadmium pigments are indeed overblown, and are why lead white has become more expensive and harder to obtain in Europe, I agree. But the health effects from inhalation of solvent vapors are of greater concern, and many people are ignorant of them and of the fact that oil painting can be done without them. They need to be made aware of them. That’s part of a teacher’s responsibility.


MITRA (Materials Information and Technical Resource for Artists) Forum Topics and Sections: Health and Safety. Topics include: how to read an SDS/MSDS sheet; pictograms/labels and their associated hazards; gloves, masks and ventilation systems; and waste disposal.


Virgil’s Comments: 

I know and have known enough artists who have developed health problems later in life from exposure to solvent vapors to indicate to me that the best thing from a health perspective is to avoid using solvents when painting. We shouldn’t assume that there is no harm just because we haven’t had serious symptoms yet.

Lead Paint

Virgil’s Comments: 

The main reasons behind the elimination of lead white from some companies’ oil paint lines include fear of product liability lawsuits from consumers and/or employees and the cessation of production of basic lead carbonate pigment by the major European pigment manufacturer from whom all the European artist paint companies had previously obtained it. EU laws were undoubtedly instrumental in this. It has less to do with the actual dangers involved than with the popular perception of them.
It’s stupid to be careless with anything that carries significant risk. Consequences follow stupidity. Intelligence is a survival asset. It’s a fact of Nature.
Some oil paints also have other ingredients in them that could be harmful to the health if ingested, some of which might not be listed on the tube, so eliminating lead and cadmium-based paints will not necessarily make eating oil paint safe. Of course, paint isn’t intended to be eaten, but rather to be used for creating works of art.
The most sensible approach is to treat all of our paints and materials as if they were poisonous and to work carefully enough to just get paint where it belongs, on the palette, the brushes, the canvas and the knives, and nowhere else. I don’t see that as a difficult proposition.

Cadmium Paints

Virgil’s Comments:  The concerns over assumed toxicity of cadmium pigments is misguided, because they aren’t pure cadmium, but compounds in which the cadmium is not sufficiently bioavailable to pose any serious health risks, as I have stated here many times before. Joy Turner Luke brought that point out in her presentation before US Congress some 30 or 31 years ago when she was Chairperson of the ASTM Subcommittee on Artists’ Paints and Materials, testifying on our behalf to convince the legislators to exempt cadmium and lead-based artists’ paints from the proposed ban. Because she presented good science in her testimony, in addition to the legislators receiving many letters, petitions, e-mails and phone calls from artists, including me, Congress was persuaded to see it our way, and that’s why cadmium and lead-based paints are still available to us in the U.S. today. If your objection to cadmiums is based on the belief that they’re toxic, it might interest you to know that the cadmium compounds in these oil paints are not sufficiently bioavailable to present a significant health hazard. This was the upshot of ASTM’s argument in convincing US Congress not to ban cadmium paints back around 1990. It was demonstrated that they are not water-soluble, so cannot poison groundwater, and they aren’t a health hazard because our bodies can’t absorb them. They aren’t pure cadmium. It’s still prudent to not be sloppy or careless in handling oil paints, of course.

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