Notes for a King County Art Hazard Project Talk
Below are my notes and email conversations with Dave Waddle who is the Coordinator of the King County Art Hazard Project

Fumes Vapor and Dust
We are inhaling and eating highly toxic chemicals all the time and in every place, including our homes. It is the resilience of the human body that keeps us from getting sick. When our bodies are no longer able to resist chemical the bombardment allergies and illness occur. By eating organic foods you are lowering your overall exposure to toxic chemicals. Non-organic strawberries are the most toxic of all non-organic fruit, because of all the little crevices that can hold pesticides.

The greatest kind of chemical threat are through inhaling toxic fumes, vapor and dust. This is because inhaled chemicals go directly into our system, the brain in particular, and are not filtered by the liver and kidneys like consumed chemicals are.

Always have ventilation. Air flow that moves fumes and vapors away from you.

Question: Are fumes toxic if they cannot be smelled?

Answer: That is absolutely not the case. Cyanide gas smells like almonds and is spectacularly toxic. Hydrofluoric acid, used in glass etching, is odorless and colorless, and less than a cup spilled on your skin will either kill you immediately by its toxic effects or dissolve your bones and leave you an amputee.

[Note: while non odorous fumes can be harmful, in the case of odorless mineral spirits, like Gamsol, the odor is in proportion to its toxicity. In other words, the less odor the less toxic.]

Paint Smell
Q: Is the smell of oil paint by itself toxic? I have been told it is not.

A: Oil in oil paint is usually not toxic. If solvents are used with the oil, you’d have to look up the solvent to determine its toxicity



From least bad to most worse labels go like this:

CAUTION (Least bad)
WARNING (Badder)
DANGER (Worse)

On art chemical products look for the AP seal, or the CL Seal.

AP means “Approved Product” and they are safe.

CL means “Caution Label” and means that you need to take precautions to use the product according to the safety instruction on the container.

Archival Odorless Lean medium that we use in class has a CL label.


Reduce Exposure
Chemical safety is all about reducing exposure.

Sauna’s push toxins out of your body.

Loosing weight removes toxins from your body.

In general oil painters have relatively low chemical exposure to highly toxic chemical compared to other art mediums, like pastels (dust), glass blowing and ceramics.



Use Nitrile Exam gloves, or vinyl. Latex gloves, however, do not form as good of barrier.
Get powder free, at Home Depot or at paint stores.

To read more details of any chemical substance you can probably find its MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) online. Gamblin has their MSDSs posted on their website.

Rags soaked in linseed oil and placed in a confined space may spontaneously combust. If you use linseed oil on rags, let the rags air dry and then wash them after.


Citrus Solvent
Citrus solvent is combustible, even though it is made from a fruit. Orange skins are toxic, and you will know this if you ever try to eat one.


Spray adhesives
Always spray out doors pointing the sprayer away from you and in the same direction the wind is blowing. Always use gloves too, because any adhesive spray the touches your skin, permeates your skin. And all adhesive sprays are toxic. If your fingers are tacky, toxic chemicals have gone into your blood steam.

To get away from toxic sprays, find a less-toxic brush-on adhesive.

Products by Elmer’s and Best-Test are in general safer products, probably because they are also designed for use by children.

If you are going to be stirring up lots of fumes, vapors or dust, like in a wood shop, use an ‘organic cartridge respirator’.


Only use ammonia free acrylics


Cadmium in Paint
Q: Is there cadmium in cadmium paints? I heard that the amount of actual cadmium in todays cadmium paints is too small to be harmful. 

A: Cadmium red, orange or yellow paint may or may not contain cadmium. The only ways to tell if a paint contains cadmium is to read either the label or the material safety data sheet. Cadmium compounds are known carcinogens. Carcinogenic compounds can be harmful to susceptible people at very low concentrations, so I can’t say that it is harmless. The amounts you would typically be exposed to in your artwork are likely too low to cause harm. 


Zinc in Paint
Q: Is the zinc in Zinc White paint toxic?

A: Zinc oxide used in white paint is considered nontoxic.


Q: Can you comment on Gamsol?

A: Here’s a link to the material safety data sheet for Gamsol OMS. As you can see it is considered minimally toxic via skin absorption, though it can cause drying and cracking of exposed skin. The highest risk for toxicity is by inhaling the vapors.


Skin Permeation
Q: Is it true that paint on the skin does not permeate the skin, even though paint may have a toxic metal in it?

A: Metals typically won’t penetrate intact skin. Most paints don’t include solvents that permeate the skin, so it is very unlikely to pose a problem.

Q: If paint has solvent in it, and let’s say the solvent permeates the skin, does the solvent carry toxic metals into the skin with it?

A: Most of the time, the metals would not be carried into the skin.


Studio Safety
Q: My teaching studio is in a room with no openable windows, though I do have an air conditioner that I turn on when it gets too hot. My students use only OMS. When you come into the room you can smell the paint a little, but no doubt, there is also some OMS in the air, linseed oil smell, and Galkyd. What would be your advice in this situation, if anything?

A: I recommend that, if possible, you use the OMS in a location where there is good air exchange (outside or by an open window with an exhaust fan).


Archival Odorless Lean Meduim
Q: I have found an excellent painting medium, it is lean and dries fast. It is called Archival Oils Odorless Lean medium. It is an alkyd resin medium and is odorless unless you put your nose right up to it, then you can smell it slightly, yet on the back it says to use in a ventilated area. The label also states that it is “The Healthier Alternative” yet on the side is the CL label. What is your opinion about this product?

Isoparaffinic solvents are considered low-toxicity solvents. They are not non-toxic, which is why they have the CL label. I would consider them a safer alternative to most solvents.

Q: The bottle is also embossed with the word “Poison” on its side. Does that mean specifically “Do Not Drink this substance” or does "Poison" mean something else?

A: I think Poison is a bit exaggerated, since it is considered moderately toxic. Poison labels are applied to products that are poisonous by ingestion, inhalation and/or skin contact. The label is not specifically referring to ingestion/drinking the material.

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