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.
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.