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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

Solvent Safety in Simple Terms

Summary:  Making a studio a safe place to make art takes both diligence and basic knowledge of the materials being used.  This essay simplifies what is a very complex set of guidelines that have been codified by industry standards.

Digest Overview:

·       Solvents have short and long-term effects on health and intake via breathing or direct contact should be avoided.

·       Solvent fumes in a typical artist’s studio should not accumulate to a level where they can be easily detected by smell.

·       Outdoor use or in a studio with air evacuation equipment should be used to stem the buildup of solvents in a workspace.

·       Ignore advice that conveys that solvents are nothing to be concerned with and should be used without precautions.

Read the remainder of the essay to gain a full understanding of the issues.

I have come across a series of disturbing social media posts that argue against promoting safe studio practices and support the cavalier use of solvents.  For examples that focus on this issue in-depth, visit the Solvent Safety page to read more.  Social media sites that are designed to allow users to ask questions, especially about studio safety, should not be shamed for wanting to maintain their health. Add to this some extremely unscientific advice and a novice artist can come away with ideas that are dangerous to follow.

To be realistic, no federal organization provides direct oversight of what artists do in their own homes. Unlike industries that use chemicals in their places of business, state and federal governing bodies regulate, inspect, and can inflict punitive judgments if safety standards are ignored because their focus is on worker safety.

While most artists are happy that they don’t have to follow the same strict chemical exposure guidelines as an industry does, bear in mind that many of the same chemicals used in industrial settings are also employed in home studios.  So “we” as artists become our own inspectors and regulators. 

I fear many are failing to do a good job regarding this task.  Many online comments not only ignore safety but also taunt participants who do want to be safe. Implicit in their arguments is that the rules of chemistry and physics don’t seem to apply to them. (Hint: sadly, they do.)

One of the main failure points for those who want to stay safe is that the guidelines laid out for industries are so complicated because they were written for company safety officers for employees working in an industrial setting being exposed to substances in a typical 8-hour workday. They also use safety calculations for exposure to chemical liquids, vapors, and dust that nobody in a home studio can either measure or comprehend.  So, understandably, a lot of people either ignore safety protocols or declare them to be overbearing to follow.

The health guidance provided by OSHA and The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is substantial, but it needs to be translated into something artists can use without the need to consult an industrial hygienist, purchase expensive monitoring equipment, or build an expensive space to make art that satisfies safety needs.

So, to that end, let’s explore easy-to-understand concepts that can be understood and employed in an artist’s studio that promotes safe practices.

Solvent Concentration in the Air:

Let’s put aside the complexities of explaining OSHA guidelines about parts per million of exposure limits during an 8-hour workday and focus on practical steps that can be taken.

Solvents can be broken down into various types.

Petroleum-Based Solvents: These are derived from crude oil and make up the most common solvents recognized and used by artists. They are also some of the most dangerous solvents available. They are safety rated by the quantity of toxic fumes that evaporate from the solvent and the concentration that triggers the potential for health problems if inhaled over a period of time.

To simplify this in a studio setting, where artists have no easy way to monitor the level of solvent fumes, a simple rule can be followed.

If you can smell the odor of solvent in a room, the room is likely to contain a sufficient concentration of solvent vapor to cause harm. 

Like most things, repeated exposure to a substance initiates health problems and it is clear that artists paint over a long period of time.  So, the aim to mitigate solvent exposure is to either work outdoors with these solvents or use some sort of air evacuation system in a studio to keep solvent fumes from building up. One open window is insufficient to accomplish this task.

 A few solvents sold for art purposes have very low evaporation levels, so it takes more time for them to build up vapors to a dangerous threshold. Unfortunately, in my opinion, because many of these slow-evaporating solvents are nearly or completely odor-free, the user is unaware that any vapor buildup is present.  See the essay:  Should Odorless Mineral Spirits be Scented?  The post I wrote provides my rationale for why I think these no-odor solvents need a nontoxic smell to alert artists if they leave a container open or if too much vapor buildup has occurred during a painting session.

Examples: Odorless Mineral Spirits, Mineral Spirits, Paint Thinner, Benzene, Toluene, Xylene, Stoddard Solvent, White Spirits, and Naphtha.

Essential Oils: These are solvents derived from plants and trees and are termed essential oils. Typically, the most common one is turpentine and the concern with turpentine is that it evaporates very fast (unlike some of the petroleum-based solvents that are formulated to evaporate very slowly) and the fumes build to a hazardous level very quickly. While some profess a strong attraction to the smell of turpentine, ultimately the enjoyment of the smell is not a good thing to become “addicted” to as an artist. Other artists express that they hate the smell, and some have even become physically sensitive to being exposed to turpentine and have unpleasant adverse reactions.

Given the volatile nature of turpentine, my advice would be to avoid using it in an indoor setting, especially one that has poor ventilation. Also, other less dangerous solvents offer many of the same working properties.

Another solvent group is derived from citrus extractions. Most find them pleasant to use but these solvents can build up harmful air levels like any other solvents.  They should be used with the same care and caution that govern other solvents to maximize safety.

Artists note the use of Oil of Spike Lavender and claim it has no harmful odors. However, the Data Safety Sheets provide warnings that the volatile components can cause irritative harm.  So again, treat Oil of Spike like any other volatile solvent and use it with caution in an environment that has air evacuation equipment.  With several of the warnings focused on irritation, that should serve as a motivating factor to protect oneself from exposure.

Warnings about irritation should not be ignored. Just because a citrus or oil extraction solvent appears to be “natural” and the warnings don’t describe frightening consequences based on using them, avoiding exposure should still be practiced. Irritation exposure over extended periods can cause health problems.

Examples: Turpentine, Acetone, Oil of Spike Lavender, Citrus Solvent, d-Limonene,

Other Solvent Substances: Alcohol is also a solvent but is not frequently cited as a solvent related to art materials.  Many conservators use them in conjunction with the restoration paints they employ.

Lastly, water is considered a solvent. It is a key component for many artists who use oil-based paints when they design a solvent-free studio.  Water and a variety of soaps can be the foundation for curbing or eliminating the use of solvents in a studio space.

Examples: Ethyl Alcohol, Soy-Based solvents, Water

As said previously, the goal is to have a long, HEALTHY, painting life. Since artists have ample opportunity for repeated exposure to solvents every time they paint, ignoring the safe use of solvents is likely to have dire consequences. 

The Syntax of Color

Thanks to posts hosted by MITRA, the University of Delaware’s site for information on solvent classification. Further, the CDC - NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards is an informative source of technical information on a variety of hazardous materials.

Syntax of Color

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1 Comment

Apr 10

Interesting, thank you!

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