Pretty poison The hazards lurking in arts and crafts

November 06, 1990|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Evening Sun Staff

IN THE SEASONAL rush to get the portraits painted and the photographs developed and the doll house furniture carved and the wreaths spray-painted, leisure time artists can lose sight of the hazards that lurk in Santa's workshop.

Sealers, spray paint, turpentine -- even rubber cement -- are among commonly used materials that can affect artists' health if they don't follow proper safety guidelines.

Exposure to toxic materials can lead to lung problems as well as rashes and skin conditions. Many artistic processes generate dust; even liquid materials turn to dust if they aren't cleaned up promptly. Dust particles in lungs commonly get coughed up and swallowed as phlegm, exposing the stomach to chemicals as well.

Many art schools offer mandatory courses in art safety techniques. The Maryland Institute, College of Art teaches safety procedures in each of its disciplines. Soon the school will offer a required course summarizing the entire field of hazardous art materials.

"When it comes to this topic, redundancy is important. We can't say enough about it," says Jack Wilgus, professor of photography and a member of the college's health and safety committee.

Wilgus remembers his graduate school days in the 1960s when he saw photographers stick their arms into vats of chemicals, fishing around for film. Some artists still point their paint brushes in their mouths, work long hours with solvents and thinners without proper ventilation, and breath in dust from dried clay and pigments.

The first step to safety, he says, is knowing all of the hazardous ingredients in the materials you are using. Next, you should make sure your work space has the proper level of ventilation -- a matter crucial to photographers with home darkrooms.

Other steps to decrease health risks include wearing protective clothing, face and hand gear, storing materials in covered containers and cleaning up the studio properly and promptly.

Each artistic discipline carries its own set of risks. Glazes used in ceramics, for instance, can cause chronic poisoning. Pigments in paints may cause heavy-metal poisoning while paint-brush cleaners may cause acute and chronic nervous system damage. Marking pens with some forms of permanent ink can generate headaches or nausea. Direct dyes, such as Rit or Tintex, can irritate lungs and cause allergies.

The lead fumes from soldering stained glass -- as well as the dust in filing and machining it -- can cause lead poisoning. Leather workers can develop dermatitis and lung irritation from the organic dusts on leather. Prolonged exposure to wood dust can lead to a mild degree of chronic lung disease while such vibrating tools as chain saws can eventually cause numbness in hands and fingers.

Two of the best current guides to art safety are "Artist Beware," by Michael McCann, executive director of the Center for Safety in the Arts in New York, and "Safe Practices in the Arts and Crafts: A Studio Guide," published by the College Art Association of America.

All art safety manuals insist that artists should pay particular attention to materials and their storage if they are working near young children or pregnant women. In this event, they should never use aerosols.

"Basically, this whole field is about using materials correctly. And whenever possible, substituting a material which is non-toxic," Wilgus says.

A list of studio safety procedures, compiled from "Safe Practices," follows:

* Observe proper clean-up techniques: Use moist cleaning instead of dry sweeping or vacuuming. If you clean up solvents or materials that evaporate, don't leave rags or cat-box litter in an open container.

* Never eat in your work area. Eating or smoking are extremely effective ways of getting toxic materials into your mouth.

* Try to time work activities to give yourself two- or three-week rest breaks between using toxic materials.

* Use hand lotion at least twice a day to keep skin from cracking.

* Wear safety goggles. Try a full face mask if you are working with hot particles or caustic liquids.

* Reserve a set of clothing for wearing exclusively in the studio. It should include an apron or coveralls and a hat or kerchief to keep dust and material out of your hair. Hot or caustic processes may also require sleeves or gauntlets. When possible, wash your work clothes separately from your other laundry.

* Always have materials on hand for a rapid cleanup of spills; a good supply of cat-box litter can be helpful. Stock first aid materials, including eye washes. Post a list of emergency telephone numbers.

* Make sure you have the appropriate fire extinguisher. Type A extinguishers are useful only for flammable wood, paper and similar material. Flammable liquids need Type B extinguishers while electrical fires require Type C. You can get a combination ABC extinguisher. For flammable metals, such as magnesium, lithium, titanium, zinc, calcium, sodium or potassium, you need Type D extinguishing material, which comes in a container.

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