Solvents, Sickness, and Clean Air : the 21st Century

Solvent Safety Now –

a Flashback to Scandinavia in 1990

safe solvents

Volatile liquids such as benzene, mineral spirits, lacquer thinners, turpentine, formaldehyde, or styrene, immediately pollute the air in the artist’s studio, or in the trade when used for painting, varnishing, or thinning, overcoming the body’s defenses through inhalation or skin absorption, first resulting in headaches and dizziness (neuron damage), and then quickly compromising overall immunity, and creating pathways of entry for added carcinogens such as heavy metal pigments.

It is thought that Mark Rothko’s ill health late in life may be attributed to his use of innovative resin from the 1950s — phenol formaldehyde — which became the chemical backbone of his famous maroon colored paintings, and other color field paintings.

The commonly used ‘odorless’ spirits are equally harmful, and these vapors are thought to have caused the untimely death of the TV painter Bob Ross. Today these spirits are still used in most art schools with poor control and minimal education about current solvent science.

Petroleum-derived solvents when used indoors require the use of effective ventilation / local extraction and a personal respirator with organic vapor cartridge, and many industrial workshops adequately control these exposures, while most artist painting studios and schools do not.

Following 30 years of global study, general research findings about solvent hazards are universally accepted by a wide range of bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and CDC, and by governments and safety organizations, such as OSHA, or COSH in the UK.

Anyone who regularly inhales solvent vapors – like most painters or printers do – are likely to develop cancer, impaired brain function, suffer damaged fertility, or liver and kidney damage. The research shows that the likelihood to develop ill health rises dramatically for professionals above the age of 50. Sometimes even sudden death is caused by concentrated painting fumes, solvents, spirits, or thinners, especially in hot and confined working conditions, from instant lung or heart failure and lack of fresh air. The French CONSTANCES study from 2020 collated compelling evidence of common memory loss in people age 45 to 69 exposed to gasoline, thinner, or mineral spirits.

Solvents are designed to dissolve and suspend oils or monomeric molecules (in plastics and acrylics), but they equally well dissolve our body’s delicate fabric of proteins, DNA, neuron coatings, blood vessels, and lipids through vapor inhalation or skin absorbtion into the blood stream and into internal organs. This very rapid pathway of entry has immediate effects, which accounts for the common sense of light-headedness users experience when working in paint solvent vapors.

Painting… in a state of dizzyness!

this graph shows typical neuron damage

ABOVE: a healthy neuron has a thick myelin sheath

BELOW: a neuron eroded by solvents has a damaged insulating layer;

this literally results in electrical short circuiting within the brain,

…headaches, dizzyness, migranes, and impaired health.

After several years such solvent damage can result in permanent brain injury and

impaired intellectual functioning, or other nerve damage and organ damage.

Yet a majority of artists, painters, or house painters and academics maintain use of mineral spirits and similar more harmful products, without any explicit need, and in spite of scientific advice, at a time when safe alternatives are plentiful and well established.

Often artists, or students, then pay the price through memory loss, headaches, ill health; unnecessarily the co-emergent risks of COVID 19 now being aded into the volatile mix.

Here a text from 1991:

“Vegetable Oils
The May 1991 issue of The Daily Hazard, the newsletter produced by the London Hazards Centre, reported on the International Hazards Conference that was held in Copenhagen in September of 1990. Of note were reports that 600 (3.5% of the total) Danish printers have been compensated for brain damage due to organic solvent exposure, occurring primarily during cleanup.

In efforts to find safer substitutes for the organic solvents, printers in Denmark have experimented with soya bean oil, vegetable oil, and coconut oil. While the oils had to be used in different ways, often in smaller quantities, to be effective, there was surprising success. The printers worked with a company to formulate “NatuRen” made up of soya and coconut oil which is being tested in 27 printing works. Laboratory workers have followed the printers’ example, and are experimenting with olive oil and coconut oil as substitutes. CSA encourages these substitutions, and also acknowledges that work processes and methods must be often changed in accordance with new products.”

In general, most types of waterbased paint or ink are safer than oil / solvent based types of paint and ink, and water in itself is the safest — and oldest — painting solvent available.

The Asian painting traditions can be considered much safer to artist’s health and overall wellness than the Western canon because Asian art predominantly used waterbased paints, ink, and solvent.

From the late 1990s a second generation of painting solvents brought significant safety improvements through the introduction of soy and lemon-derived products. For instance the aircraft maker Boing achieved significant safety improvements for workers by switching from petroleum based thinners to limonene based ones for turbine maintenance.

Today, third generation alternative solvents and paint products are entering the market, and some of these are claiming to be nearly free of any harmful emissions. Most of these new recipes and admixtures are proprietary trade secrets.

There are products that rely on plant based chemistries from industrial agriculture or forestry, are derived from whey and dairy sources, or work with enzymes. Some of the new paint solvent, binder and medium formulations are also thought to come out of genetic engineering.

Over the past five years we tested many of these third generation solvents and mediums in painting, decorating, and printmaking, and many of the outcomes of this research are more than encouraging, with excellent results in paint quality, luminosity and durabilty.

High quality art making can today be carried out in clean air and without the hazards connected to studios polluted with benzene, spirits or turpentine.

In the US, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were cemented by congress as universal rights in the year 1776, and many believe that health and the right to clean air are an essential part of these fundamental principles.

nontoxicprint / safepainting – The Toxicity of Solvents
researched and co-edited by: | F.K. and JH Shaw | M McCann PhD | A Babin | C Randall / further advice: D Hinkamp / Monona Rossol
© 2023

Phenol formaldehyde makes a glue-like substance that
closely resembles natural amber, and is still used today as an adhesive
in the woodworking industry. It is thought that Mark Rothko
very successfully combined traditional painting techniques such as egg tempera and fat-over-lean oil painting with emerging materials such as phenol resins
and early acrylic paints. The use of thin resin layers in-between
other paint layers may also account for some of the warm luminosity found
in many of his late paintings. nontoxicHub – Rothko-Methods

Jane Qiu, Tate Modern

(Mark Rothko / Bob Ross / natural amber / phenol resin,