Toxic Art Materials : What Every Artist Should Know

By Nate Orman

For casual hobbyists and professional artists alike, art supplies have become such familiar materials that one rarely stops to seriously consider their specific ingredients.

Somehow we reconcile the uneasy suspicion that everything causes cancer with the memory of that kid eating crayons in kindergarten.

In reality, art materials should be approached with informed caution.

Toxic substances such as cadmium, lead, chromium and cobalt provide the most vibrant colors, but repeated exposure can cause serious harm.

Painters, printmakers and ceramicists regularly use solvents and glazes that are hazardous.

We rely on the warning labels to guide us in which supplies we choose and how we use them, but those labels supply incomplete and potentially misleading information.

According to Merle Spandorfer, artist and author of “Making Art Safely,” “Just because a product is on the market does not mean that it is safe or that the label tells the while story.”

Current federal labeling standards exist as a result of the 1988 Labeling of Hazardous Art Materials Act, which requires labels to state known acute and chronic effects caused by chemicals.

Labels are largely based on the standards pioneered by an industry group, the American Society for Testing and Materials, and are certified by the Art and Craft Materials Institute (ACMI), another industry group.

California’s Proposition 65, passed in 1986, reiterated these labeling requirements with a significant change: While the federal law is enforced by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Prop. 65 allows citizen groups and individuals to file lawsuits against companies that label their products inadequately, making up for the government’s lack of enforcement.

Unfortunately, the language used in labeling has precise legal meanings which can differ from common usage.

The current labeling system comes in three forms: “AP” (Approved Product), “CP” (Certified Product) and “Health Label,” all of which signify that the product is properly labeled according to the legal requirements — not that it is safe.

There are several keywords to look for:

  • WARNING signifies that the substance is toxic with short-term effects
  • CAUTION means that it’s toxic and a chronic hazar
  • DANGER indicates that the material is highly toxic
  • POISON means that it is highly toxic if ingested.

These terms are relatively straightforward, but another one, NONTOXIC, is less so than you’d expect.

The legal definition of “toxic” is determined by animal testing whereby evaluators give a single “dose” to each of a group of rats.

If less than half have died after two weeks, the product is labeled “nontoxic.”

According to this system, as Dr. Michael McCann, former executive director of the Center for Safety in the Arts points out, even asbestos could be deemed nontoxic.

Testers also overlook the effects of chronic exposure when they assume that individual artists will be working with smaller amounts of toxic substances than their industrial counterparts — which doesn’t account for situations where artists work and live in a common space.

Other expressions are similarly misleading.

“Use with adequate ventilation” indicates that the product contains toxic material that becomes airborne during use — but remains below acceptable danger levels if appropriate ventilation is used.

Often this is an expensive and impractical proposition in an artist’s living space.

“Biodegradable” simply indicates that something breaks down into non-polluting substances, but the original product can still be toxic and unsafe.

“Natural” describes the origin of the substance but makes no claims about its toxicity.

“Almost any of these art materials can be a problem at home,” says Monona Rossol, a leading art safety expert, in her practical book, “The Artist’s Complete Health and Safety Guide.”

As if that weren’t enough, there’s also the fact that these tests rarely take into account the use of materials by children, who can’t make safety choices and are more susceptible to toxins at lower doses.

Fortunately, artists can make informed choices.

Manufacturers are required by law to furnish a detailed “Materials Safety Data Sheet” if you simply write or call them at the address and telephone number provided on the product in question.

More safety information can be found at the Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety website,

Nate Orman is a local printmaker, cartoonist and graphic designer. More information about labeling and Nate’s other work can be found at