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Toxic Art

On shelves, in studios, and at schools, art supplies containing toxic ingredients pose risks to human health and the environment.

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Petrenko is now a sculptor working with found objects, and in her position as the studio manager for the University of San Francisco, she instructs students about the environmental impact of their art. "I put pictures of small, cute animals that have been victims of oil spills above the sink so they don't pour oil down the drain!" She thinks that the younger generation is growing up using less-hazardous media, and though younger artists are not fully informed about the environmental and health impacts of their materials, they are certainly more aware than their predecessors.

Teaching future artists about the full impact of art materials is a powerful step on the path to a sustainable art movement. But there's also a need for large-scale organization and action around issues of toxicity, waste, and the ecological impact of art. The related field of sustainable design has been quite successful in creating a mass movement: Designers and design schools are increasingly partnering with businesses and product manufacturers to implement principles of sustainability. And education in sustainable design is becoming a required part of the curriculum at most design and architecture schools.

Ian Garrett, who co-directs the Los Angeles-based Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts, says the art world is lagging behind in this movement. "Unfortunately there's no Designer's Accord for artists yet," he said, referring to a prominent coalition of designers, educators, and business leaders who commit to five guidelines for integrating sustainability into design.

For now, artists can start to make more informed choices about materials and try to use their artwork to educate the public about sustainability issues. Karen Michel believes this will add up. "The eco revolution really starts in these choices," she said.


A Responsible Approach to Art

How to Handle Toxic Art Supplies:

1. Wear gloves — non-latex might be best. And wear masks, especially if you have respiratory problems, even when the vapors or dust particulates are from "non-toxic" products.

3. Never eat, drink, or smoke while working with art materials.

4. Wear dedicated aprons or smocks for messy work.

5. Wash your hands thoroughly at the end of your work session.

6. Don't store food in a refrigerator used for chemical storage.

7. Don't hold a paint brush or other tool in your mouth.

8. Never use solvents to clean your skin.

9. Remember that "Use with proper ventilation" means using spray paints and adhesives outside, away from people.

10. Know what to do in an emergency. Contact Poison Control: Throughout California, call 800-222-1222.

11. Request and store Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for toxic art supplies

Proper Disposal of Art Materials:

In Alameda County, artists can drop off hazardous waste, including most used art supplies, rags, and containers at several locations coordinated by StopWaste.org. In San Francisco, the Recology San Francisco Dump accepts hazardous waste during business hours.

Toxic Art Supplies to Avoid:

1. Turpentine, citrus oil, and odorless mineral spirits used to clean oil paints

2. Any paints containing heavy metal pigments like lead, cadmium, chromium, barium, mercury, arsenic, selenium, manganese, cobalt, antimony, nickel

3. Model-making materials like plastic resins, foams, fiberglass, pressure-treated lumber

4. Rubber cement with hexane

5. Model cement, airplane glue with acetone and toluene

6. Spray adhesives, super glues

7. Spray paint, enamel paint

8. Pottery glazes with heavy metals, especially lead

9. Permanent markers (containing xylene, solvent-based)

10. Soft pastels

Safe Art Supplies:

1. Elmer's glue, wood glue, rice paste adhesive, gum Arabic glue

2. Milk paint, casein paint, and water-based paints without heavy metal pigments. Locally, Glob paints is a great choice for natural paint: GlobItOn.com

3. Recycled paper, hemp paper

4. Plant and vegetable dyes, some can be home-made

5. Modeling beeswax, non-toxic carving wax

6. Beeswax crayons

7. Inks made from indigo, the galls of oak and nut trees, from berries, and from squid and octopus

8. Balsa wood, balsa wood foam

9. Home-made gelatin gesso

10. Home-made papier mâché (flour, water, and a bit of glue)

Most materials available at Blick Art Materials and at Utrecht in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco.

Reused/Recycled Art Materials:

East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse (4695 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-547-6470, CreativeReuse.org)

The Scroungers' Center for Reusable Art Parts (SCRAP) (801 Toland St., San Francisco, 415-647-1746, Scrap-SF.org)

The ReArt Store at Whole House Building Supply (1000 S. Amphlett Blvd., San Mateo, 650-558-1400, DriftwoodSalvage.com)

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