Artists used to be pretty cavalier with the art materials they used. Neurotoxins, toxic metals and other potentially hazardous or carcinogenic materials were routinely found in the artist’s studio, disguised as paint, pigments, glazes, solvents, etc. Lots of artists got sick or went mad. It was a cliché, but it may have been nothing more than a case of simple poisoning. That was never determined for sure. Then the art supply industry cleaned up its act and nowadays safety information is available on art supply web sites and materials are rated according to their toxicity.
Unfortunately, the toxicity model that was used is not up to date. Toxicity is usually defined as acute toxicity, whereby materials are rated according to whether or not a particular dose will actually kill you. In some cases, the safety data goes further and indicates whether or not long term exposure will harm you (i.e. kill you). I think that standard is too loose.
What isn’t considered is the cumulative effect of multiple toxins over a long period of time. There is no data. There are no studies. There are also tens of thousands of compounds that have never actually been tested for safety. We don’t know if the interaction of toxins amplifies the effect. We don’t even know what gets damaged in the human body, with some compounds. It has only recently been discovered that the skeleton is involved in the production of insulin, for example.
Toxicity testing also does not concern itself with is which organ, endocrine system or fine cellular structure is affected by the toxin, or how. The actual mechanisms of damage are frequently not described. It may be that you can withstand lots of toxic damage to your body and get away with it, without even noticing the damage, but that if you affect a critical structure (say the end of the DNA in a T-cell or the tiny number of cells in our bodies that produce insulin) with even a moderate dose of the toxin, the damage can be catastrophic. It’s not about the dose. It’s about what you damage. That turns it into a game of chance, in which there is no safe dose. It all depends on what you break.
What the toxicity model also does not consider is that although acute or chronic long term exposure to a toxin might not actually kill you, it might impair you, or lead to the development of conditions that will lead to a fatal disease? There are also certain compounds, like endocrine disruptors, which in tiny doses will cause long term, permanent, catastrophic, irreversible harm to unborn children, your gametes, developing children and animals (thalidomide taught us that). These toxins have a tendency to bio-accumulate and magnify the higher up the food chain you go. It is these kinds of toxins that we do not want to be exposed to in the artist’s studio or to be washed down the drain for the environment to deal with at all, irrespective of the concentration.
As artists, we rely upon the acuity of our senses, such as sight, hearing, touch, etc. We often require subtle, fine motor dexterity. Our spatial awareness has to be developed and sharpened. Our higher brain functions need to work well. If there are chemicals in the environment and/or in our art materials that, while not able to kill you (either quickly or slowly), nevertheless dull those senses with chronic or acute exposure, or else impair your motor skills, dexterity or higher cognitive functions (imagination, aesthetic judgement, creativity), then that’s a big problem for artists.
Having your artistic abilities degraded or diminished due to chemicals in the environment (or in the studio), or degrading the artistic potential of unborn or developing children, should be of great concern to all artists and lovers of beauty. Saying that materials are not toxic actually isn’t enough. Do they impair your artistic faculties in any way?
I think artists need to take the lead in pressing for this higher standard of toxicity testing. Not being dead is not the same as being an intact and fully capable artist. We have the most to lose. We should be protecting everybody. It’s up to us to champion this issue.