• Michael Skalka

Get the Lead Out?

Summary: What is the impact of continued use of lead white oil paint on the health of artists? What does health/safety literature tell us about the hazards of having lead white in our studio or in plein air painting specific to use cases for artists when employing lead as a mixing white or for priming painting supports.


We recently returned from a brief trip to California and among other activities, we visited the Petersen Automotive Museum in downtown Los Angeles. It was interesting to see so many different automobiles spanning the history of car manufacturing. Upon returning, and back to normal routines, I came across a YouTube video I wish I had seen prior to the visit to the auto museum. It would have made for an interesting discussion with the tour guide who was amazingly knowledgeable about motor vehicles of all makes and models.



A channel on YouTube that focuses on technical subjects is called Veritasium. It provided me with a launching point for this Syntax of Color essay. The video starts with discussion about a scientist named Clair Patterson who set about to calculate the age of the earth. This is accomplished by measuring the amount of decay of radioactive material that transforms into lead. The samples Patterson measured distorted a realistic hypothesis about the age of our planet. The samples had far too much lead and thus shortening the predicted age of the Earth by a considerable amount.


Why did samples contain so much lead? Early combustion engines manufactured at the start of the 20th century exhibited a phenomenon largely forgotten in our modern age of electronically controlled engines and high performance fuels. Gasoline without additives exhibit the phenomenon of compression induced combustion. The fuel injected into the cylinder explodes prematurely when the piston squeezes the air and fuel vapor. This is exactly what a diesel engine is designed to do purposefully. However, in a gasoline engine, the compression explosion interrupts the normal fuel/ spark ignition sequence and results in the engine making loud noises and vibrations that are called “knocking.” Several years of research done by Thomas Midgley Jr. to resolve knocking found that the addition of a small quantity of tetraethyl lead retards the propensity for gasoline vapor to explode by compression alone. Tetraethyl lead added to gasoline in the early 20th century stopped engine knocking but consequently it also resulted in the emission of substantial amounts of lead into the environment due to the sheer volume of automobiles spewing out lead containing exhaust.


When we purchase fuel for our cars, the manufacturer specifies the octane grade of gasoline required to retard knocking. Modern, large, high horsepower cars need higher octane levels in the fuel they burn to curb compression induced explosions of the fuel. Measurement of pollution levels of lead and other post combustion gasses became the focal point for curbing all forms of automobile emissions. Thankfully, as of the late 1980s lead was phased out and other octane boosters were found as substitutions.

Studies have indicated that the population of the United States has varying lead levels in their blood based on many factors such as the age of a person, their environment and occupation. Reports indicate that 53% of the population has blood lead levels (BLL) above 5 ug/dl in people born between 1951 and 1980. That is the population that lived during the height of the use of tetraethyl lead in gasoline.

So why be concerned about lead found in blood levels? The Veritasium video revealed some interesting medical information that provides an overview of the dangers of lead in the human body. Lead mimics calcium in our bodies and the lead is stored in our bones which are calcium rich. Purging lead from our bodies is accomplished through chelation, but it is not a quick and easy process. Despite the ability to remove lead from our bodies, it does permanent damage to the nervus and cardiovascular systems. Lead breaks down the myelin sheath in our brains and blocks neurotransmitters. The damage causes learning issues, headaches, abdominal pain, and numbness to name just a few symptoms.


Lead uptake in cumulative and so is the damage it causes. But how does this relate to use of lead in making art? The subject of removing lead from paint is not a new topic. The commercial paint world halted the production of lead white paint in 1978. It is the reason homeowners are warned the potential presence of lead in homes constructed prior to 1978.


Several years after 1978, health and safety officials, especially in Europe, started to apply pressure to curb all manufacturing and sales of lead products in paint. Consequently, if commercial manufacturers stopped making lead carbonate pigment, soon art material manufacturers would find it difficult and eventually impossible to purchase lead white to make primer or flake white for paint. Many European art materials manufacturers stopped selling dry pigments, especially lead white. In powder form, lead white is in its most hazardous state since inhalation or accidental ingestion can occur easily if the pigment powder is touched, become airborne or finds its way into people’s mouths by eating food that may be contaminated with lead pigment.


No comprehensive website on health and safety appears to exist to address the concerns artists may have about the hazards of lead. We can only glean information from occupational, medical or safety sources that provide general guidance on the dangers of lead. However, the warning information is useful to artists. An applicable warning that comes close to addressing the concerns of artists is related to occupations where lead is in use.


Two medical sites have pages about lead contamination that state the following:


Occupations. People are exposed to lead and can bring it home on their clothes when they work in auto repair, mining, pipe fitting, battery manufacturing, painting, construction, and certain other fields. Mayoclinic.org


How do adults get lead poisoning? Adults can get lead poisoning by being exposed to lead through eating food and drinking water contaminated with lead. They may eat from dishes or drink from cups contaminated with lead. If you work in an environment with lead paint or are working on a home remodel, you could be exposed to lead dust. Clevelandclinic.org


If we extrapolate and agree that the actions of an artist who uses flake white is akin to a worker who also uses lead as part of their profession, then we have a basis for constructing a risk assessment and educating ourselves on the potential for lead contamination, or at the least, lead exposure that results in some measure of contamination.


Let’s divide this into segments. The first one deals with the use of lead white in a studio environment. If an artist uses lead white, they should assess how they are handling the material. If an artist is using dry lead white pigment to make paint or create a custom ground application, unless a studio is equipped with a fume hood or related mitigation device, assume a high likelihood the studio environment is contaminated. Lead dust is easily dispersed and can become airborne when used in an open studio environment.

If lead is combined with an oil medium, review how differently lead white is handled as opposed to other less dangerous paints. How are palettes and brushes cleaned? Are efforts made to mitigate any paint contact with open skin? How is waste paint handled? Artists who use lead white should walk through how they exercise their studio practices and assess if they are handling it to mitigate contamination of themselves, their studio space and their disposal of waste.


Now comes the part you have been waiting to read. Should artists abandon the use of lead white paint? This is where risk assessment plays a role. First, let’s use an analogy. Some people for reasons unknown to me or many others, collect snakes, but not just any snakes. They populate their collection with some very dangerous snakes. Are they insane to do this? They don’t think so. They employ what they believe to be safe handling practices to avoid getting bitten. However, just last week a local news broadcast told of an expedited quest to obtain anti-venom doses from two institutions to provide a snake collector with a lifesaving treatment for a bite from a very deadly snake. Despite precautions, bad things happen.


If you wish to use lead white in your studio, you have hopefully done due diligence and assessed your risk based on the review of the factors I outlined in the previous paragraphs. Review your confidence in procedures that treat lead white with utmost respect. Do you clean and dispose of your waste properly? Do you practice good hygiene and never eat or drink anything in your studio while handling paints? Do you sand lead primed painting supports or paintings to remove materials? Finally, do you refrain from doing what van Gogh reportedly did and point your brushes by putting them into your mouth to reshape the tip of the brush? I have no idea why anyone would do this.

(In a parallel, tragic health and safety situation, the practice of pointing brushes was the cause of many cancers and deaths in the watch making industry because women licked the tips of their brushes to sharpen the point when applying radium to the face of watch dials.)


If you eliminate or never have used lead white in your studio, then reading this only provides assurance that your risk tolerance is low, and you don’t value the incorporation of lead white in producing your artwork.


If you decide to continue to use lead white you cannot have 100 percent assurance that you are not or ever will be at risk for being contaminated by lead. If lead is present in your studio, you always carry the burden of potential contamination. This is especially the case if you engage in very relaxed studio safety practices. Awareness and assessment are the key to making educated choices on the use of flake white paints or primers.


The Syntax of Color

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