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Graphics Arts Media

The art supplies and chemicals associated with graphic media are often extremely hazardous. Depending on the type of art supplies used, artists can develop the same types of occupational diseases as industrial workers. Studies show that people who work with hazardous graphic media chemicals can develop dermatitis, lead poisoning, silicosis, liver and kidney damage, nerve damage, reproductive problems, carbon monoxide poisoning, cancer, and other ailments.
The risk of chemical hazards is directly linked to the following factors:
•    Duration and frequency of exposure
•    Chemical toxicity
•    Chemical amount
Workers are exposed to graphic media hazards through skin contact, inhalation, and ingestion.
Follow these safety guidelines for working with graphic media materials prior to use of a hazardous material:
•    Be fully knowledgeable of the material – training under the Hazard Communication Act is mandatory.
•    Wear protective clothing and follow MSDS, as appropriate.
•    Use nontoxic or less toxic solvents and chemicals when possible.
•    Eliminate toxic metals such as lead and cadmium. Instead, use cadmium-free silver solders and lead-free paint, glazes and enamels.
•    Use water-based instead of solvent-based materials.
•    Use liquid materials to replace powders.
•    Use wet techniques (such as wet sanding) instead of dry techniques.
•    Apply coatings by brushing or dipping instead of spraying.
•    Eliminate cancer-causing chemicals.


Solvents are used to dissolve oils, resins, varnishes, and inks. They are also used to remove paint and lacquer. Due to their common usage, solvents are one of the most underrated media hazards. Most organic solvents are poisonous if swallowed or inhaled in sufficient quantities. They also cause dermatitis and narcosis.

Use the least toxic solvent possible. Denatured or isopropyl alcohol, acetone, and odorless mineral spirits are less toxic than solvents such as chloroform or ethylene.

Aerosol Sprays

Aerosol sprays, such as fixatives, paint sprays, and adhesive sprays, are extremely dangerous if someone inhales the fine mists produced by these products. Air brushes and spray guns are equally hazardous. Use aerosol sprays in a well-ventilated area and wear a dust/vapor mask to protect you from the hazardous vapors.

Acids and Alkalis

The acids and alkalis used in ceramics, photo chemicals, paint removers, and similar materials can be very caustic to the skin, eyes, respiratory system, and gastrointestinal system. Likewise the acids and alkalis used to etch metals and glass can be very dangerous. Strong acids, such as hydrochloric, sulfuric, and perchloric acid, require special handling as outlined in the MSDS. Alkalis, such as caustic potash, caustic soda, quicklime, and unslaked lime, also require special treatment. Remember to add acid to water, not water to acid, when mixing chemicals.

Paints and Pigments

Many paints and color pigments contain hazardous chemical compounds. Lead paint, for example, is extremely dangerous, and should never be used in its powder form. Other paint components, such as chromate, cadmium, and cobalt pigments, are equally hazardous. Do not inhale powdered paint or spray paint vapors or accidentally ingest pigment by placing the brush tip in your mouth. In addition, do not eat, drink, or smoke while painting. Any of these activities could result in chronic poisoning.

The table below outlines common paint pigments and their hazardous chemical component:

Hazardous Chemicals

Pigment (Paint name)

 Arsenic Emerald Green, Cobalt Violet
Antimony True Naples Yellow
Cadmium All Cadmium Pigments
Chromium Zinc Yellow, Strontium Yellow, Chrome Yellow
Cobalt Cobalt Violet, Cobalt Green, Cobalt Yellow, Cerulean Blue
Lead Falk White, Lead White, Creminitz White, Mixed White
Manganese Manganese Blue, Manganese Violet, Burnt Umber,
Raw Umber, Mars Brown

Vermilion, Cadmium Vermilion Red



Many of the chemicals used for photographic processing can cause severe skin and lung problems. The greatest hazards associated with photography include the preparation and use of concentrated chemical solutions. Never touch chemical powders or solutions with unprotected hands. In addition, take care not to stir up and inhale chemical dusts.


Good ventilation is essential when working with photographic chemicals.

The following are common photographic agents and their hazards:

  • Developer: May cause skin irritation and allergic reactions.
  • Stop-bath: May cause burns and throat irritation.
  • Fixer: Highly irritating to lungs.
  • Intensifier: Very corrosive and may cause lung cancer.
  • Reducer: Contact with heat, concentrated acids, or ultraviolet radiation produces poisonous gas.
  • Toners: Highly toxic.
  • Hardeners and stabilizers: Often contain formaldehyde which is poisonous, a skin irritant, and a known carcinogen.


Plastics, Acrylics, Epoxy Resins

Plastic hazards result from making plastic and working with finished plastic. The greatest hazards associated with making plastic come from the monomers, solvents, fillers, catalysts, and hardeners that are commonly toxic. The hazards involved with finished plastics result mainly from the methods used to work the plastic. For example, overheating or burning plastic produces toxic gases. Polishing, sanding, and sawing plastic produces harmful dusts.

Certain types of plastics, such as acrylics and epoxy resins are also hazardous. The components in acrylic, for example, include irritants, explosives, and flammables. The main hazard associated with acrylic compounds, however, is inhalation. Always maintain good ventilation when working with acrylic.

The epoxy resins used in laminating, casting, glues, and lacquer coatings, are also skin irritants, sensitizers, and suspected cancer-causing agents. Avoid skin contact and inhalation when working with epoxy resins.


Pottery and Ceramics

Pottery clay contains silicates that can be hazardous if inhaled. Many low-fire clays and slip-casting clays also contain talc, which may be contaminated with asbestos. Long-term inhalation of asbestos can cause cancer and respiratory diseases. When mixing clay dust or breaking up dry grog, use exhaust ventilation and/or wear a toxic dust respirator. Work with wet clay when possible.

Pottery glazes also contain free silica, including flint, feldspar, and talc. Wear a toxic dust respirator when mixing or spraying glazes.

Toxic fumes and gases are often produced during the firing process. Ensure that all kilns are ventilated. In addition, use infrared goggles or a shield to look in the kiln peep hole. Proper eye protection will help prevent cataracts.

Wood Working

The hazards associated with woodworking include sawdust inhalation, exposure to toxic solvents and adhesives, and excessive noise from woodworking tools. Long-term inhalation of sawdust can cause chronic respiratory diseases. Depending on the type of wood, short-term sawdust inhalation may also produce allergic reactions. Toxic preservatives, such as arsenic compounds and creosote, may cause cancer and reproductive problems. Epoxy resins and solvent-based adhesives, also pose potential hazards. Use dust collectors around woodworking machines, ensure proper ventilation, and wear personal protective equipment, as appropriate.

Revised May 2011
Reviewed November 2014