Artists, like many people, tend to overestimate the importance of airborne exposures and underestimate the importance of other sources of exposure.

  • The painter who wants to use a respirator to reduce a negligible solvent exposure, may ingest heavy metal pigments that go from dirty hands to food to mouth.
  • Graphic artists who worry about the smell of ink may worry too little about skin absorption of the glycol ethers used in many inks.
  • Jewelry makers usually do little to prevent accidental ingestion of metal dusts via food, even though they are concerned about airborne exposures.
  • Artists who smoke fail to realize the amount of metal that can be transferred from dirty fingers to cigarettes, then vaporized and inhaled irrespective of respirator use.

Overexposures to silica are fairly common from work with pottery, ceramics and sandblasting. These workers can gain significant protection from approved dust masks. Unfortunately, housekeeping in many potteries is so bad that potters receive as much silica exposure from shuffling across the floor as they do from mixing clay. And few people are willing to wear a dust mask continuously. By the way, pre-mixed clays don’t solve the problem of silica dust exposure from poor housekeeping.

Excessive solvent exposure is quite uncommon except during cleanup in some types of printing. Generally, solvent use is a greater fire hazard than exposure hazard. Good fire protection measures such as safety cans and solvent dispensers also reduce exposure.

Because most artists know little chemistry, they need very specific instructions. For example, it is not easy to explain why an acid-gas respirator is ineffective when etching plates with nitric acid.

As always, I have to offer the disclaimer that the above are broad generalizations; professional judgment should always be exercised when evaluating a specific situtation.

(Excerpted from email from Dave Drummond, former Director of Safety, UW-Madison)