Volume 13, Number 2, May 1991, pp.24-25

Zora's Column: Comments on 'The Artist's Complete Health and Safety Guide,' by Monona Rossol--or--Rushing into the Arms of Panic?

by Zora Sweet Pinney

Before we rush to avoid any art materials, let's get the positive as well as the negative facts in the handiest and most usable way...reading the information available on containers. Monona Rossol does a thorough job of presenting facts in this book, but too frequently, her emphasis is on the negative aspects of health and safety. Positive handling precautions and alternative materials are sorely lacking. The concept of engendering a positive reaction in readers by the use of personally threatening stimuli makes me question an author's respect for the intelligence of art material users. To quote Bill Leisher, we must have "reasonable expectations." Reading a label that clearly and simply shows what may reasonably be expected and how to deal with it may allow the informed use of products rather than completely eliminating them from the repertoire of possibilities.

Last year, I was asked for an interview to be used on the "Today" show about the use of cadmium pigments in artists' paint. The local producer and her camera crew spent about three hours with me gathering material. Some of you saw the show and are aware that "Today" also interviewed others, including a chemist who was not a toxicologist and was not familiar with the use of art materials. The chemist made some very strong statements that were totally inapplicable to artists' materials. The implication was that cadmium is deadly in all forms and should be completely banned. It was enough to really turn some people into anti- cadmium freaks. About a month ago, I had another call from a producer for a television doctor. Her questions seemed to me to be designed to elicit some very negative responses about the use of art materials in general. I told the interviewer of my concerns about the indoctrination of fear of the consequences rather than emphasis on proper use, and she concluded the conversation abruptly. I'm still wondering if my message got across or if the program ever aired.

In The Artist's Complete Health and Safety Guide, the author neglects to mention the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) Standard D-4236, the constructive and successful response of the art community to the problems of health hazard labeling. The ASTM is the world's largest source of voluntary consensus standards. An ASTM committee must be comprised of users, manufacturers, consumers and general interest groups, and compliance with an ASTM standard is purely voluntary.

In 1977, I joined the ASTM committee dedicated to the development of revised voluntary standards for artists' oil paints and a new standard for artists' acrylic paints. Within the structure of the ASTM, a manufacturer may not chair a committee. Our committee was presided over by a practicing artist and teacher. In attendance at the meetings, over thirteen years, were several artists, manufacturers, a toxicologist, industrial hygienists, conservation scientists, paint chemists, one art materials retailer cum conservator (that's me), representatives of the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) and several state health agencies. Such a diverse working group was a marvel. Exchanging ideas and information, and modeling it into what is known as the finest consumer materials related standard ever developed, was a very slow and challenging procedure. ASTM D-4236 is so well thought out, with consideration for both artists and producers, that the safety labeling devised by the committee that developed this voluntary standard was mandated into the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA) by the U.S. Congress. Every conservator and artist should look for conformance to ASTM D-4236 on all art materials purchased.

On page 43 of The Artist's Complete Health and Safety Guide, the author discusses the label symbols used by the Art and Crafts Materials Institute (ACMI). ACMI is an organization whose members are a group of international manufacturers of arts and crafts materials. One of the functions of the ACMI is to facilitate compliance with ASTM Standard D-4236, and the law, through a program using a common toxicological evaluation source. Their product seal symbols--Approved Product (AP), Certified Product (CP), or Health Label (HL)--may be used by members only. There are also products that comply with the standard by being labeled in accordance with the law, but their manufacturers are not members of the ACMI and therefore do not use that symbology. Lack of the "CP," "AP" or "HL" seals on the container does not imply that those products should be AVOIDED. But it does mean that you have to read more carefully and get the proper information.

ASTM D-4236 is cognizant of the chemical constituents, and their possible chronic adverse toxicological effects on the human body, considering their reasonably foreseeable usage in art materials. It addresses the potential for known synergism and antagonism of the various components of the formulations and the effects of decomposition or combustion. Taking all of these factors into consideration, it provides even the negative aspects in a positive way on the label. If the product contains a substance that constitutes a chronic problem, the word WARNING must appear on the label together with a list of potential hazards.

Some of the "Mandatory Statements" are:

As a direct result of ASTM Standard D-4236, many materials have been reformulated or eliminated to mitigate dangerous ingredients.

Much of the information presented by Rossol in her comprehensive, well-arranged volume is slanted toward the needs and concerns of institutional instructors, particularly those in grade schools. I commend her zeal on their behalf. But in the process, an emphasis on emotional reaction to the preservation of health may have been substituted for rational evaluation of hazardous materials, how they may be identified on the container and safely used. As a reference source, this book should be available to all conservators, artists or craftspersons. It has a wealth of valuable information. But approach health and safety regulations with "reasonable expectations," please. avoidance is not a panacea.

(Zora Sweet Pinney is a fine arts technical consultant.)

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