By Allen Barkkume
When we think of predicting, evaluating and controlling chemical hazards in a school setting, the chemistry lab or the custodian’s closet comes to mind. But the truth is that the art classroom is home to the largest supply of toxic chemicals in the building.
From the lung-debilitating silica crystals in clay, to the neurotoxic vapors of solvents, to the carcinogenicity of heavy metal pigments, the art room is full of hazardous materials. Chemical dust, fumes, and vapors can be released during dry-mixing, spraying, heating, burning, sanding, and other art processes, exposing staff and students by inhalation, skin contact, and accidental ingestion.
The regulatory programs we use to label art materials can be confusing and even counterproductive. Materials labeled “nontoxic” may have toxins in them. “Nontoxic” means that a material or its ingredients were tested for toxicity and found to be safe. However, if a material has not yet been tested, it is still considered nontoxic in the same way we consider a defendant innocent until proven guilty. In addition, some manufacturers label their products “natural.” Be aware that turpentine, asbestos, lead, and even citrus oil are all natural but very dangerous if used incorrectly.
Many of the art materials found in the classroom come with their own Safety Data Sheet (SDS). Although the SDS offers critical information about storage, use, and emergency instructions, it is limited by one important stipulation: if a product contains proprietary ingredients, they do not have to be listed on the SDS. For example, an aerosol glue product may list ingredients for the aerosol propellant, but not for the adhesive itself. This severely limits the information provided by an SDS.
You might see a label that declares a product compliant with ASTM D 4326 -94 (2016). This standard applies to art materials but states, “Since knowledge about chronic health hazards is incomplete and warnings cannot cover all uses of any product, it is not possible for precautionary labeling to ensure completely safe use of an art product.”
Predicting the exposure to toxic materials is the first half of a good health and safety plan. The next half is controlling those exposures. There is a clear hierarchy of controls, and we should make it a priority to seek out the most effective controls first, saving the weaker protections for situations in which there are no alternatives.
The most effective thing to do when faced with a toxic chemical in the classroom is to find a safer substitution. The lead-based “flake white” paint has now been replaced with the relatively benign titanium white. Substitution is a good solution in the art classroom, because student art work does not serve the same purpose as the work of a professional artist. One is intended to be a valuable cultural product meant to last thousands of years, while the other is primarily an educational tool. Some components that make art materials last forever are the same ones that make them toxic. Many of the persistent pigments used in traditional artwork can be eliminated for the expected intentions of student work.
The next level on the hierarchy of controls is to use engineering solutions. Installing a booth vented to the outside to be used for spraying solvent-based paints, glues, and other such products is an example of an engineering solution. This practice is not as good as getting rid of the solvent-containing products altogether, but it is the next best thing.
After that, we can use administrative controls, also known as general housekeeping. These could include wet-mopping clay dust, washing hands frequently, and abstaining from food or drink in the art room.
The final level of protection is to guard sensitive body parts. Goggles, gloves and respirators (commonly called facemasks) are a means to protect us when no other controls are available. However, even with this, we must be careful to match the right protection for the exposure—regular rubber/latex gloves can be dissolved by solvents such as paint thinner.
The chemical exposure risk in an art room can be higher than anywhere else in the building. Many art materials have proprietary ingredients that are kept secret, despite their potential toxicity. These materials may be used in creative ways not intended by the manufacturer, leading to higher exposures than expected.
The health and safety of an art classroom should not be left up to the art teacher alone. Instead, every local association should have an art materials action plan to achieve the following:
• Designate an association representative who ensures the local association action plan is implemented.
• Ensure that the school district approves the purchase of the least toxic art supplies.
• Make Safety Data Sheets available to art teachers.
• Provide art teachers proper personal protective equipment (PPE).
• Install a booth that exhausts to the outside in the art room.
• Provide art teachers training on how to minimize exposure to art materials.
This plan should be coordinated by the local association with its UniServ field representative.
Just because art materials can be toxic does not mean our students should avoid artmaking altogether. It means we should be informed and have a plan.
For more information
New Jersey Right-to-Know Hazardous Substance Fact Sheets (HSFS), New Jersey Department of Health. Each HSFS gives easy-to-understand information on an individual chemical’s health hazards and how to control exposures. Available in English for 1,700 chemicals and in Spanish for 900 chemicals, you’ll find it at web.doh.state.nj.us/rtkhsfs/indexfs.aspx.
Allen Barkkume holds a Master of Science in Architectural Research from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and is pursuing a Master of Public Health in Industrial Hygiene from the City University of New York’s School of Public Health. He was a Bloomfield High School art teacher for ten years, and is a consultant with the New Jersey Work Environment Council, which is a frequent partner with NJEA on school health and safety concerns.
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