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Scientific VIEW

Surveying Health Hazards of Life in Art


"If you want to be beautiful, you have to suffer." My mother would explain the cost-benefit ratio as she twisted my hair into tight French braids that I wore until second grade. I decided then that the price was too high. I did not realize it at the time, but my mother was voicing a Victorian attitude toward art, one that envisioned cold garrets, poets coughing from TB, and painters succumbing to what we now recognize as exposure to toxic substances.

The idealization of artists as victims of their art may have been a reaction to the materialism of early capitalism. Or it may simply reflect the envy of the untalented. Whatever the cause, the reality of artists dying for their art, indeed, of dying as a consequence of their art, can be traced to neolithic potters who absorbed lead from their glazes, or to ancient sculptors who inhaled marble dust.

I suspect that many of the cloistered monks who illustrated medieval manuscripts died prematurely. They used only "natural" pigments--for there were no others--and a glance at their palettes tells the tale. Green pigment--obtained from the leaves of deadly nightshade. Red--from cinnabar, red sulfide of mercury. Orange--lead tetroxide. Gold--from gold sulfide or arsenic. All poisons. It is easy to imagine these scrupulous painters moistening the tips of their brushes in their mouths as they bent to the parchment. These pigments alone are enough to produce acute gastrointestinal bleeding, blood poisoning and a range of tumors.

During my childhood I often helped the teacher mix powdery clay into a maleable mixture. As a teen-ager I proudly squeezed blobs of lead white and chrome yellow onto my palette. No one suggested that the clay could damage my lungs or the lead and chrome poison my blood.

Today, however, there is heightened awareness of the health hazards of many of the materials that artists and craftspeople routinely use. Artists and art teachers can choose from two kinds of art supplies. There are old favorites, like lead-based white or arsenic-based gold, that are still available. Careful artists can now substitute safer pigments for the toxic ones.

But new materials are appearing constantly from chemical laboratories. Polyester resins and acrylic paints free the artist from the constraints of other media and invite truly new interpretations of color and light.

Despite the presence of some of these materials on the market for at least two decades, few studies have pinpointed their effects on human health. Artists are usually independent and often idiosyncratic, but they are not altogether unorganized. A decade ago the Foundation for the Community of Artists began investigating artists' materials and has published a guide in "Health Hazards Manual for Artists." In the 1985 edition, Michael McGann cites statistics about women artists who have a higher than average rate of rectal, breast and lung cancers. He compares these figures to studies of industrial workers exposed to the same chemicals who suffer from excessively high rates of the same kinds of cancers. Statistics are not the same as a "smoking gun," hard evidence that a toxin causes cell mutations, but with long-term, slow-acting toxins statistics are often the best indication of a causal connection.

Artists' materials seem to fall into the cracks of federal control. The United States Public Interest Research Group, a research and advocacy organization, is now asking the government to require comprehensive labeling about the hazards of art materials. They want certain products simply banned from schools. But the Art and Craft Materials Institute in Boston, a manufacturers group that tests and gives its seal of approval to products it finds "nontoxic," insists that most manufacturers are responsible and are already monitoring themselves.

Yet not everyone follows their suggestions. Some regulatory statutes are probably necessary for supplies used in schools. Children are more susceptible to toxins than adults because of their size and the fact that they are growing rapidly.

For adults, I suspect, vigilance is the best protection. Artists ought to keep informed and avoid all materials containing lead, arsenic, antimony, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, manganese and mercury. Those using resins and other products whose long-term effects are unknown ought to ensure that their studios are well ventilated, wear protective clothing where possible, and be alert to any unusual symptoms. Should these occur, they should stop using the materials immediately.

Children are safest using water-based products. At school and at home they ought to be out of the room when powders are being mixed and ought never to eat where arts and crafts are going on.

We cannot live in a risk-free world. However, unlike the medieval monks, we know that many of the old pigments are toxic. Those we can avoid. As for new materials that allow artists greater freedom, the best we can do is to be aware that some of them may be time bombs. Forewarned is in a sense forearmed. A wise artist will keep an ear tuned to the ticking.

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