Should You Be a Little Paranoid? The Toxicity of Art
Some of the most toxic ingredients in art supplies can be found in paints, inks, dyes, glazes and glues. This can include toluene and xylene, which emit fumes that can cause fatigue, confusion, nausea, headache, loss of appetite, and even loss of vision and hearing with short-term use. And while you’ll feel better right away when the fumes are gone, long-term exposure can do real damage, including depression, insomnia, extreme tiredness, irritability and memory loss. Some other ingredients can also damage the nervous system, cause skin allergies, and harm the liver and kidneys.
Other art supplies contain lead and heavy metals. While heavy metals occur naturally, they are highly toxic to most living creatures, even in small amounts. Some can cause organ failure, while others have caused the collapse of entire fish populations when they leeched into water.
So while it’s good to be a little paranoid about your art supplies, it’s more productive to know that choosing water- and plant-based materials will help safeguard your health and the health of those who create along with you.
Acquaint Yourself With Paint
Like most water-based paint, watercolors are a safe bet, but as mentioned above, many contain pigments that have heavy metals. Thankfully there are now plant-based watercolor paints available. Created in Germany, these paints use plant dyes mixed with a beeswax and aluminum oxide. Not only are they biodegradable, they are as non-toxic as you can get. You can also purchase eco-friendly watercolor pencils, which are made by several manufacturers. These are less about the health safety of the pigment, and more about the fact that they are made with re-forested wood, or wood that has come from forestry that replants a tree for each one cut down. This can really make a difference in the pencil industry, which uses around 82,000 trees each year for the US alone, and often from old growth forest.
Oil paint tends to be the most dangerous type of artist’s paint, partly because it depends on solvents to mix the paint and wash the brushes. There are now water-soluble oil paints that have been specially formulated to allow the linseed and safflower oil to mix with water, eliminating the need for a toxic solvent. Markers, watercolors, and acrylic paint are also available as water-based solutions, and while these may still contain formaldehyde and ammonia, which can strongly irritate eyes and nose and especially affect those with asthma, these are still considered safer and ecologically friendlier than oil-base paint.
There are also powder pigments available made of natural earth and minerals, which you can mix with refined walnut oil to create bright, ecological, and healthy paints. If mixing your own pigments isn’t your cup of tea, then water-mixable oil paint is not quite as good, but still much better than regular oil paints.
The latest trend in furniture refurbishing is old-fashioned milk paint. Organic, biodegradable, with no volatile organic compounds (VOCs are chemicals that tend to evaporate into the air, resulting in odorous fumes), milk paint can give new life to old furniture without the toxic fumes of latex and other traditional paints. Milk paint usually comes as a powder that is mixed with water to create a matte or wash finish. It’s often sold with eco-friendly bonding agents, waxes, or hemp oil finishes. It can be used on bare wood, plaster, concrete, painted walls, or furniture and is especially useful for natural building materials like straw bale and cob homes.
Non-toxic finger paint
Children love to work with their hands, and the tactile nature of finger painting has long made it a crowd pleaser. But parents beware: it’s only a matter of time before some of that paint ends up in the mouth. Using non-toxic, plant-based options like the eco-finger paint from Eco-Kids is a wise decision when your child’s health is at stake. The paint’s all-natural ingredients (organic fruit, plant and vegetable extracts, rice flour, and clay) mean unlimited exploration for kids and peace of mind for parents. Made in the U.S.A, the kit arrives with five, 4 oz packages of powdered pigment that mixes into over 60 oz of vibrant and dazzling fun.
Think About Ink
Calligraphy ink isn’t usually targeted as a big polluter, but in the interest of avoiding toxic pigments, ‘green’ calligraphers are using walnut ink, which can be purchased or made at home. This ink has a rich sepia tone and is made of black walnut hulls and alcohol—a really eco-friendly writing option for anyone. Investment in a fountain pen is a way to stop purchasing disposable plastic pens, which contributes a mind-boggling amount of plastic garbage to landfills. Americans throw away 1.6 billion pens every year, and most people have hundreds in their house at any one time, awaiting their doom. In 2005, the company BIC announced that they had sold 100 billion pens. Unfortunately those pens are not recyclable.
If art printing is your thing, then you may be surprised to know that inks are usually petroleum-based, and full of VOCs. Fortunately, there are soy and vegetable based inks available for screen printers, block printers, and small-scale craft printers that contain no carcinogenic ingredients or hazardous materials. While these used to be a little lower-quality, technology has advanced to the point that there is no loss of quality when using these inks.
The Glue That is True
Glue is a major craft supply, and while kid’s glues are non-toxic, anything used for art, such as rubber cement and paper glues have a much heftier environmental price tag. These are made of petrochemicals like polyurethane and PVA, VOCs, and just about anything else you don’t want going into your lungs.
Instead, consider making your own glue. Normally used for paper maché, simple flour and water can be used to glue any paper project. This glue is also extremely easy to mix: one part flour to one part water, adding a little water at a time to create the right consistency.
If you prefer to purchase your supplies, one of the few craft glues for adults that works for just about anything is Aleene’s Tacky Glue, which is water based and non-toxic.
The Madness of Paper and Canvas
While paper and canvas won’t physically harm you, they can harm the environment in a big way. Paper production contributes to 36% of the annual timber harvest in the US, and in Canada, 21% comes directly from harvest trees. Pulp mills then emit nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide, which are major contributors to acid rain. Not only that: wastewater containing chloarates, alchohols and a plethora of heavy metals is often dumped into major water sources. In Canada, pulp mills are the third largest source of lead in water. Paper makes up 40% of the total waste in the United States, or almost 72 million tons. Even recycled paper can be a source of pollution, especially if it is using bleached pulp.
Handmade and recycled paper
You can make your own handmade paper, which does require having other paper on hand and is just a method of recycling, or you can purchase a variety of eco-friendly art surfaces. You can purchase handmade art paper, find many papers and art boards made of sustainable forest products, recycled art journals and mixed media paper, and 100% super-white recycled drawing paper that is indistinguishable from non-recycled paper. One of the most environmentally friendly papers is hemp and post-consumer waste fiber mixed paper. Not only is this paper acid free, and longer lasting than wood fiber paper, it doesn’t require deforestation or toxic bleaching chemicals. Instead, it is bleached with hydrogen peroxide, which is much easier on the environment.
Art canvas is made of cotton, which is one of the most pesticide-heavy crops in the world, painted with VOC-heavy acrylic gesso, and stretched on an unsustainably-harvested wood frame. Instead, you can purchase organic cotton and hemp canvas and linen, which you can stretch yourself or take to your local art store for stretching. Even without the organic cotton, hemp needs very little pesticides or fungicides to grow. Combine this with an eco-friendly gesso, such as Sludge, which is made by harvesting the water byproduct of manufacturing acrylic paint and thus prevents runoff into rivers (but may still contain heavy metals) and you’re ahead of the game. Or you can purchase a limestone powder gesso kit, which uses a natural plant-based glue, instead of rabbit glue, which is the traditional ingredient.
Other Eco-Friendly Art Supplies for Kids
Companies like Eco-Kids also make all natural wax crayons and non-toxic modeling eco-dough for those budding artists who want to go beyond paint. The containers are even compostable, which means less waste when little hands are done creating—although that may take some time. Thanks to its natural ingredients, the eco-dough doesn’t dry out. When it starts feeling less than supple, just add a drop of water or vegetable oil and you’re ready to create anew.
Inspiration From the Earth
‘Green’ art is becoming increasingly mainstream, and nature is not only an inspiration for art, it is becoming part of art. As artist Paul Cezanne once said, “Art is harmony parallel with nature.” When the earth has for so long been the source of beauty and ideas for so many, it is only right that art would work in harmony with nature.
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