Solvents : The Science

Volatile Organic Compounds


Petroleum-derived solvents when used indoors require the use of effective ventilation / local extraction and a personal respirator with organic vapor cartridge. Today, there are many health-friendly alternatives. 

The Toxicity of Solvents FK. co-edited by: | JH Shaw | M McCann PhD | A Babin | C Randall | © 2013-2023.  Further scientific sources: Dave Hinkamp MD, MPH, Monona Rossol / Princeton University, The WHO, Health in The Arts, UIC, Chicago, CDC, ILO (UN)

NEUROTOXINS and brain damage

Most petro-chemical solvents and their noxious vapor emissions may cause infertility or birth defects and should be considered potentially carcinogenic, even if this hazard is not listed on the label, or in msds data sheets. This is due to the likely presence of traces of benzene and other powerful carcinogens. Virtually all petroleum derived solvents and VOCs are known neurotoxins, capable of causing brain and nerve damage, or even sudden death. Solvents pollute water and are very harmful to aquatic organisms.

Organic solvents such as mineral spirit or white spirit (broadly known as VOCs) are widely used in traditional printmaking, printing, and painting, and in the paints, coatings, and ink industries. Some argue that modern solvent use is steeped in history, but the refined petroleum distillates that artists or house painters use in large quantities are a relatively recent development. They are the products of industrial petroleum production and organic chemistry – from the 1850s onwards – and evidently cannot have been used by the old masters, as claimed by some. Artists such as Rembrandt are thought to have relied on the use of specialized soaps and oils for brush cleaning (for instance Marseilles soap), and the precious turpentine was used in moderation. 

Since the 1960s there has been increasing medical evidence that most petroleum derived solvents are toxic and detrimental to human health.

This has been the basis of various lawsuits brought by afflicted workers, for example in the US railway industry, or in the paint industry. Over the past 20 years – and with little publicity (think NDAs) – there have also been various lawsuits regarding sickness or injury resulting from solvent exposure in the field of painting and decorating, in art schools (CAR/UIC), and in other fields such as road construction and printing.

Most people using gloss paints and other VOC-based products for home improvement are unaware of the severity of toxic exposure they may face during a painting session. In many fine art painting studios solvents are still used without any form of breathing protection, and toxins can freely enter the users body during painting.  Some printmaking workshops dealt with the issue of solvent exposure through the installation of ventilation systems, but most painting studios do not have such a provision.

Others adopted alternative, non-solvent based methodologies that now cover all major printmaking areas, and some operate in near-clean air environments. 

A general recommendation by safety advisory bodies and governments is to move from hazard containment to the adoption of new methods that are safer, and well established.

The field of domestic painting recently woke up to environmental awareness in the 1990s, moving quickly away from full VOC based household paints and solvents towards all things ‘waterbased’. Many of these supposedly ‘nontoxic’ paints can be also be very harmful as research and lawsuits have shown. 

On the UICs Health and Safety in the Arts website, the safety experts Angela Babin, Michael McCann and Devora Neumark write about the much under-rated solvent hazards: “Although some solvents are less hazardous than others, all solvents can cause toxic effects. There are no safe organic solvents, only more and less toxic ones.

“All organic solvents can affect the nervous system, respiratory system, skin, eyes, and internal organs to some degree. Solvents are also implicated in damage to both the male and the female reproductive systems.” Source: UIC Health and Safety in the Arts Library. The notion that organic solvents necessarily entail serious toxic hazards is currently being challenged by the new bio-solvent industry and some of their third generation paints and solvents. 

Whilst most petroleum-based solvents are toxic, many of the new bio-solvents are much less hazardous, especially in aqueous solutions. But some argue that even bio solvents pose reproductive harm that could lead to birth defects or miscarriages. 

REPRODUCTION RISKS and birth defects

In his book from 2012 Dwight Pogue writes: ‘During the last decade, a number of new patents have recognized research in renewable bio-based and biodegradable materials as replacements for the petroleum-based solvents that have been in common use in a myriad of industrial applications (including agriculture products, pharmaceuticals, food additives, biofuels, paints, coatings, and cleaners).’

‘Many of the new, highly effective solvents, including ethyl lactate, methyl soyate, and dLimonene, are based on such food stocks as corn, soybeans, and citrus fruit.’ (‘Printmaking Revolution’, Watson-Guptill, NY 2012). 

National Toxicology Program

Most petroleum solvents are distilled from tar and oil.

What is Tar?

Tar-products are derived from coal tar. Asphaltum or bitumen products (sometimes also called tar) are derived from crude oil. All these complex hydrocarbons or PAHs are used in printmaking, (also in painting), and have been found to be carcinogenic.

A Cancer Study by the US National Toxicology Program (research on Formaldehyde): Download the full pdf on the web site of the US National Toxicology Program.

From left to right:

Tar spreading in road construction; the industry is currently switching to non-tar alternatives to help protect the health of their workers. / A typical tar/asphaltum based hard ground solution / a tar ball found on a beach / An illustration of typical polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – benz(e)acephenanthrylene, pyrene anddibenz(ah)anthracene. (Wikipedia) / (right) Lithotene and Litho Tusche Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), also known as poly-aromatic hydrocarbons or polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, are potent atmospheric pollutants that consist of fused aromatic rings and do not contain heteroatoms or carry substituents.

Naphthalene (White Spirit | Mineral Spirit) is the simplest example of a PAH. PAHs occur in oil, coal, and tar deposits, and are produced as byproducts of fuel burning (whether fossil fuel or biomass). As a pollutant, they are of concern because some compounds have been identified as carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic (WIKIPEDIA). Note: Carcinogenic = causing cancer | Mutagenic = damaging sperm and egg | Teratogenic = causing birth defects

Expert Advice on Solvents, Then and Now 

Numerous solvents that were classed as ‘moderately toxic’ in older literature on solvent safety are now regarded as ‘toxic’. For instance White Spirit / Mineral Spirits or Acetone have been re-evaluated by experts and are now classed as ‘toxic’ and as potential (secondary) carcinogens. These are substances that create a conducive environment for cancer to develop (for instance in the presence of lead or heavy metals). 

Glycol ether, often quoted as being a mere irritant and a necessity is also toxic, not only in concentration but also diluted (e.g. in water-based paints and cleaning products).

Solvent Innovation 

The dilution ventilation approach underlying expensive extraction systems installed in some art schools may be seen as temporary and inefficient answer; often local extraction is an additional requirement when using VOCs in a professional setting. 

Toxicologists used to fail to agree on safe exposure levels for solvents but insist that even small amounts of inhaled solvent vapors can be harmful. Since the onset of the pandemic in 2020 international experts seem to be getting closer on consensus.

Over the past 20 years, safe and reliable alternatives to solvent based methods have been established in painting, and for all major printmaking disciplines and are now being used in print studios around the world. Stanford scientists found that the impact of solvent vapors on human health is 1000 times greater in an indoor environment, rather than outdoors. 

This may well explain why ill health still occurs, despite the widespread adoption of more or less elaborate ventilation systems in professional print shops. Major innovations include: 


Waterbased Methods, Safe Solvents Etching Acrylic Resists, Metal Salts, Nontoxic Solvents 

Collagraph + Monoprinting Acrylic Media, Nontoxic Solvents Photo Etching + Photogravure Photopolymer, Intaglio Type Relief Printing Nontoxic Solvents Book Art Photopolymer, Nontoxic Solvents 

Lithography Polyester Plate, Nontoxic Offset, Waterless    Printmaking Inks Waterbased, Oil-based and Water-miscible made without toxic pigments or VOCs 

Offset Printing Inks made from plant sources (soy and linseed oil), Safe Solvents PAINTING Waterbased Paints | Improved Acrylics, use of nonVOC solvents, Water-miscible Oil Paints Nontoxic printmaking and painting methods utilize non-VOC solvents, resists, mediums, paints, and inks. 

Many traditional materials – many paints and printmaking inks – are also nontoxic. For safety, users need to educate themselves about which kinds of binder / solvent / and pigment (cadmium etc.) are toxic and which ones are not. 

Examples of Volatile Organic Solvents:














Examples of safe, non-volatile alternatives: 










Examples of possibly safer, volatile non-petroleum solvents: 

D-LIMONENE (orange oil) 





Concentrated VOCs when directly inhaled (including plant derived VOCs such as orange oil) may cause lung damage or even death by asphyxiation D-Limonene – Orange Oil. The active ingredient in orange oil, D-Limonene is a naturally derived yet very powerful solvent. It is possibly safer than many oilbased solvents, but precautions are needed. In concentrated form and vaporized it may present a significant inhalation hazard; it requires adequate ventilation also it is highly flammable. If using substantial amounts of pure orange oil, and over prolonged periods work in a well ventilated area and use an organic vapor mask. Most citrus based solvents utilize the power of this natural paint thinner in aqueous solutions, and accompanied by other ingredients such as soy oil and corn oil and detergents. 

Very high concentrations administered in animal studies, (using laboratory rats), showed an elevated cancer risk. 

The now established bio solvent industry conducts some of the research into safer solvent, paint and ink alternatives not all their solutions are as safe as claimed! 

Many of the new, third generation bio solvents, claim to exceed safety of the previous generation, and some claim to be as good as hazard free. The are products made using enzymes or plant based chemistry and some are enhanced through bio and gene tech engineering, and are protected through proprietary recipes, and trade secrets to safeguard inventor’s rights. It seems likely that many of the latest solvent and paint products are indeed very safe, but also some will inevitable be found to reveal hidden toxicity in years to come. 

Users should always resort to clean air control through ventilation, extraction, and respirators, even if the latest ‘nontoxic, natural, or safe’ paints or solvents are in use.

(This includes both petroleum products, but also bio-based solvents, such as ethyl alcolhol, soy/ethyl lactate, orange oil, and many others). Two companies supplying ingredients for bio-solvents and volume supplies for industrial use (for instance in the printing industry) are Citrus Depot and Vertec Biosolvents. 

Both of these firms conduct leading research and development into new, and possibly safer, solvent technologies. Vertec claim to be ‘the world’s most innovative supplier of sustainable biobased solvents derived from corn, soybeans, citrus fruits and other renewable feedstocks’, and the company also pursue a carbon-neutral policy. The company just announced a new product – its ‘DLR blend’, a low cost and environmentally friendly replacement for d-limonene,may have uses and applications in painting and printing. 

Citrus Depot 

Vertec BioSolvents 

Natural Earth Paint

RESEARCH EXAMPLE from the 1990s:

This is a first generation safer solvent product made in the 1990s by the pioneer Mark Zaffron / ZAcryl  (no longer available):

Safer Stripping with Orange Zest Solvents ‘D-Solve’: ‘This truly revolutionary solvent was formulated as an alternative to petroleum-based turpentines and thinners. Made from 100% renewable resources of soy, corn, and citrus, and is non-polluting, non-carcinogenic, and biodegradable. A teaspoon will thoroughly clean a printing plate. DSolve will even strip dried ink or paint. Image: Z*Acryl Product D*Solve ( a pioneering product made by Mark Zaffron, now unavailable) Citrus-based solvents made for the DIY mass-market (available in hardware and DIY stores) include ‘De-Solv-it’ or ‘CitraSolv’, …some low-cost brands contain petrochemical solvent additions (!). 

Safe Solvents

In some fields, for instance in stone and metal plate lithography less progress has so far been made towards the elimination of VOCs, although more research could surely free Senefelder’s medium of lithography from the hazards of VOC use. 

As an intermediate solution some lithographic workshops (for example at Edinburgh Printmakers and WSU) have gone beyond the dilution extraction approach and have installed localized extraction systems that are designed to give increased protection from VOC inhalation. The UIC Health and Safety in the Arts recommendation is that if local exhaust ventilation is not present, use NIOSH approved respirators with organic vapor cartridges. 

Stone Lithography and Offset Printing.

A number of studies provide statistical evidence for solvent toxicity: A Canadian study of 3726 men with cancer aged 35-70 conducted from 1979 to1985 also found that solvent exposure increased the risk of cancer (the risk nearly doubled). Although Naphtha (White Spirit, Mineral Spirits) is not (yet?) classed as carcinogenic, it typically contains 3-4 % benzene, a powerful carcinogen. Even mineral oil, often thought of as a safe cleaning agent, may contain traces of toxic VOCs. Many solvents are also toxic if ingested. 


In 2008 scientists in the UK conducted a large study into the reproductive health of painter-decorators who were working with water-based paint products, and found that especially glycol ether exposure caused significant reduction in male fertility and DNA damage. (Excerpt below:) . “New research shows that the sperm of men who work as painters and decorators is likely to be of poorer quality. This is due to their exposure to chemical solvents known as glycol ethers in water-based paints and other substances used in their trade. The scientists, from the universities of Sheffield and Manchester in the UK, published their findings in the BMJ (British Medical Journals)- journal of Occupational Environmental Medicine. The researchers examined the working lives of 2,118 men across the UK in an attempt to assess how environmental work factors, particularly exposure to chemical substances, affected male fertility.

The research took place in 14 fertility clinics in 11 cities across the country. The research showed that men working with glycol ethers have a 2.5-fold increased risk of having high numbers of sperm with low motility (swimming ability) compared to men who are not often exposed to the chemicals. Painting and decorating may be harmful to male fertility 2 June 2008 By Dr Kirsty Horsey.

Appeared in BioNews 460.

 New research shows that the sperm of men who work as painters and decorators is likely to be of poorer quality. This is due to their exposure to chemical solvents known as glycol ethers in water-based paints and other substances used in their trade.

Glycol Ether: The universal solvent…toxic or not? 

Ethylene Glycol, or glycol ether, perhaps the most common solvent, is used in a wide range of products from cheap acrylics and water-based paints to many domestic cleaning products, such as window cleaner. Paint engineers praise the chemical, often sold as ‘Butyl Cellosolve’, as the ultimate agent for making smooth emulsions and fast setting paint, without having to resort to the use of mineral spirits. But the health hazards of this clear, highly concentrated, and very volatile liquid have been underplayed and underestimated for years; recent medical studies conducted in the UK on house painters and decorators suggest otherwise. 

Today, there is little doubt that the near odorless glycol ether poses a much more serious health risk than often assumed. The clear, sweet tasting substance commonly used as anti freeze, shot to infamy in 1985 when some Austrian and German wine makers were shown to have spoiled their wine with this toxic chemical. 

The incident prompted one of the best known food scares in history and for about a year Germans resorted to drinking beer instead of wine. Glycol ether: ‘It is known to cause: throat irritation, headache, backache, kidney problems, oedema (swelling), necrosis (cell death). If swallowed, can cause drowsiness, and slurred speech, possibly stupor, vomiting, respiratory failure, – coma, convulsions, and death.’ Check MSDS information and avoid products with significant concentrations of this hidden VOC. 

Recent studies confirmed a direct link between glycol ether exposure and fertility, both in men and women. According to the University of Sheffield, (2008), house painters using water-based paints are two and a half times more likely to suffer damaged sperm, low sperm count, and infertility than other men. ‘Dr. Andy Povey, senior lecturer in Molecular Epidemiology at the University of Manchester, said: ‘We know that certain glycol ethers can affect male fertility and the use of these has reduced over the past two decades. 

However our results suggest that they are still a workplace hazard and that further work is needed to reduce such exposure.’ Original Article: ‘Occupation and male infertility: glycol ethers and other exposures’ Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 2008, 65: 708-714 

Protection against low level VOC exposure Today there are many paint products that are marketed as safe, yet there may still be harmful low-level VOC emissions, such as glycol ether. 

Examples: many water-based paints, acrylic floor finish, some artist acrylics, low odor, low VOC solvents, and printmaking resists. 

Although a full organic respirator may be impractical for a days work we would recommend wearing a disposable light weight mask that offers some organic vapor protection. 

Dispose of the mask after a day’s work (about $ 5 per mask). Product example: 3M Particulate Respirator 8514, N95, with Nuisance Level Organic Vapor Relief The US National Library of Medicine’s TOXNET information service recommends that for safe solvent handling, full breathing apparatus is required.

The case for non-solvent based methodologies in painting and printmaking is compelling: hydrocarbon solvents or VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) are neurotoxins short term exposure makes you dizzy and may even cause death long-term exposure can cause brain damage solvent use about doubles the risk of cancer solvents may harm a fetus during pregnancy, or lead to miscarriage.

Personal experience, from 40 years working in professional print and painting studios, confirms that solvent related hazards are not just a footnote on safety data sheets but a real concern: solvents are a much greater hazard than is commonly assumed. I know of many close colleagues who regularly exposed themselves to solvent fumes, who later suffered serious health consequences and died early: symptoms including brain disease, kidney damage, cancer, lung damage, nerve damage, and even sudden death.


By Angela Babin, M.S.

In July 1987, a 40-year-old school custodian collapsed on the job after being exposed to a floor-cleaning product that contained butyl cellosolve (ethylene glycol monobutyl ether or butoxy ethanol). He had been using the product in a bathroom without any ventilation, and also without respiratory equipment, gloves, or eye protection. Although the school claimed that his death 12 days later was caused by a stroke complicated by diabetes, the state Worker’s Compensation Board ruled that the fatality was due to chemical exposure.

The May 5, 1989 edition of Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Review related the death of a 34-year-old foundry worker after acute exposure to 1,1,1-trichloroethane (methyl chloroform) in April 1986. He had been spraying a chlorinated hydrocarbon solvent mixture in an open pit. He was wearing an air-purifying respirator with an organic vapor cartridge.

In November 1985, a 24-year-old man lost consciousness while cleaning out a vat in a manufacturing firm with the solvent 1,1,1-trichloroethane. He had been wearing a dust/mist/fume respirator, as well as rubber gloves and work boots.

Six fatal cases of 1,1,1-trichloroethane poisoning were studied from data from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. These cases occurred before July 1969. Five cases occurred when shipyard workers used the solvent while cleaning in enclosed spaces. The sixth case died from exposure to the solvent from sleeping near rags soaked with trichloroethane.

The cases described above are all examples of fatalities from acute solvent exposures characterized by single, large exposures to the solvent vapors. The concentration of a chemical necessary to provoke an acute fatality is usually muchhigher than levels found in normal, everday exposures. However, the above fatalities almost all involved working in enclosed spaces (a bathroom is an enclosed space) where the concentration of solvent vapors was able to build up to a very high concentration. In this type of enclosed situation, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends only positive-pressure air-supplied respirators. Air-purifying respirators do not provide adequate protection in enclosed spaces, as shown by several of the above fatalities.

In the arts, those at risk include maintenance workers in museums, art schools, etc. who might be using cleaning solvents in bathrooms and other enclosed areas, building conservators using solvents in enclosed areas, and scenic painters who might be applying large quantities of solvent-containing lacquers or varnishes to decks.

In addition, people with heart problems could be at higher risk. Most of the above fatalities involved heart failures. If an individual’s heart is already damaged, then they could be at risk at even lower concentrations than those that caused the above fatalities. For this reason, people with heart problems should minimize any solvent exposures.

Art Hazard News, Volume 12, No. 5, 1989

illustration by Jennifer Shaw PLEASE READ THE LABEL

Art materials are chemical products and the instructions and warnings given on a label should be carefully observed. In Europe, regulations were introduced in the 1960s to cover all products available to industry or the general public in the EU. The basis of the system is the classification of dangerous substances into the following categories: 









Any art material that falls into one of the above classifications must be labeled accordingly. A label can also indicate the degree of severity by describing a product as “Very Toxic” or “Extremely Flammable” for example, and most show an accompanying symbol such as the skull and cross bones for TOXIC. The three most common classifications found on art materials are:




A label may also include “risk” phrases and “safety” phrases. Example: DISTILLED TURPENTINE (WHITE SPIRIT) 

Distilled Turpentine would be labeled Harmful and Dangerous for the Environment with the following risk phrases: * Flammable * Harmful by inhalation, in contact with skin and if swallowed * 

Irritating to the eyes and skin * May cause sensitisation by skin contact * Toxic to aquatic organisms, may cause long term adverse effects in the aquatic environment * May cause lung damage if swallowed and with the following safety phrases: * Keep out of reach of children * Wear suitable protective clothing and gloves * Avoid release into the environment. Refer to safety data sheets * If swallowed, do not induce vomiting: seek medical advice immediately and show this container or label In the United States, products are also commonly labeled with the seals shown opposite. The AP seal indicates that the product has been tested by an independent toxicologist and is considered to be nontoxic.

The CL seal is shown on products that are potentially hazardous, together with appropriate phrases such as: Warning: May produce allergic reaction by skin contact Avoid skin contact Wash hands after use Keep out of reach of children The US labelling system came about through the combined efforts of a number of associations and groups. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) has prepared standards for the safe use of art materials. The Art & Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) provides labeling certification and works to promote the safe and informed use of art materials in North America. It should be noted that the EU and US systems of labeling use different levels and limits. It should also be considered that although ACMI has done a lot to promote better practices and improved health labeling, there may also be limitations regarding their scope, and sometimes their objectivity. The institute is funded by the materials manufacturers themselves rather than by a completely independent body. It would be in the nature of this affiliation that there are instances in which a completely objective point of view about health hazards may not always be possible. 

In our experience there have been instances in which products (for instance certain tar formulations for printmaking) were given a ‘nontoxic’ logo by their makers, when in fact the label should bear a warning about cancer and neurological hazards. It may seem that ACMI is not always able to police its policies, and sometimes manufacturers print ‘nontoxic’ labels on products that are known to cause toxic effects. It is best to consult SDS sheets in conjunction with product labels as these contain a lot more detailed information.

Sds sheets can be misleading – or may omit certain health information – so anyone that uses art and printmaking materials, paints and solvents is well advised to consult literature on art safety, or an independent resource such as this, to get a fully rounded picture of potential hazards. 

If you know the ingredients you wish to know more about, you can do a quick Google search such 

as ‘Toxicity of Asphaltum’. 


The petroleum industry has been marketing odorless thinners and solvents as a safe alternative to conventional mineral spirits. As a consequence, many artists, print studios and commercial printers may be using certain products in the belief that the absence of a strong odor is a guarantee of safety. This reasonable assumption is often ‘confirmed’ by the manufacturer’s use of ‘safe’ terminology and imagery on the can. Many of these products can be just as harmful as the strong smelling VOCs, and may contain powerful neurotoxins – something which may not be explicit in the labeling. 

BEST PRACTICE: CHECK THE MSDS If you want to be sure that a product is truly safe, inspect its MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) – the recommendations may surprise you! 

For example, contrary to its label, one common odorless thinner’s MSDS states that a NIOSH approved organic respirator and local fume extraction is advised for the user’s protection. Responsible art materials suppliers, such as Dick Blick, provide Material Safety Data Sheets in PDF format next to their products on the company website so that you don’t have to do the Googling for hidden hazards. 


Art schools should keep a collection of all major chemicals used in feely accessibly and visible sds sheet folders, or in an institution wide online pdf library that is searchable.

Acetone is sometimes quoted as a safe solvent because it is used extensively in chemistry labs and goes into conventional nail varnish and remover. Some artists and printers use it as a replacement for other solvents such white spirit. Medical studies have indeed found acetone to be significantly less neurotoxic than most petro-chemical solvents, but certainly it is an agent that requires good caution in its use. Some scientists argue that acetone is readily broken down and metabolized by the human body, justifying its widespread use. 

By contrast, The Tamarind Techniques Manual by Marjorie Devon quotes acetone as a known carcinogen (this may be incorrect), and as an agent capable of causing birth defects. Acetone has the same ability to cause short term damage in higher concentrations as more toxic solvents (it may cause unconsciousness and severe lung damage!) and perhaps its greatest hazard is presented by its great dissolving ability. Acetone is known to enhance and amplify the toxic effects of toxic agents that may be dissolved by it, for instance nail varnish ingredients such as toluene or toxic pigments that may cause birth defects. Used in a traditional print studio acetone may exacerbate the carcinogenic effects of tar products. 


Methanol, Isopropanol, and Ethyl Alcohol: Which is Safe? These three forms of alcohol are very common solvents and de-greasing agents. We would advise against the use of Methyl Alcohol (also used as fuel) as it is highly toxic and is known to cause blindness. It is also added to Ethyl Alcohol (Drinking Alcohol) as a denaturing agent to safeguard against abuse as drink. Both Isopropyl alcohol and Ethyl Alcohol are sold as medical âRubbing Alcoholâ, but only Ethyl Alcohol is recommended as a relatively safe solvent, cleaning and and de-greasing agent. It is the only alcohol that our bodies can readily metabolize, hence its popularity in alcoholic beverages. Cheers! 

Editorial (FK), with special thanks to Chloe Randall for her invaluable assistance with research into VOCs; special thanks also to Michael McCann for many editorial suggestions.

Should acrylic paint products be considered potentially carcinogenic?



The Toxicity of Acrlics / Hidden Exposures

In the 1990s much has been made of the fact that many acrylates can be partially metabolised in the human body, making them safer, or considerably safer, than solvent based paints; and immediate health effects being rare. But for more than a decade there has been increased speculation, and now increasing evidence, that some of the ingredients of acrylic paint formulations should be considered carcinogenic. Common base chemicals used in acrylics, resin, and plastics manufacture, include: – Vinyl Chloride, Polyvinyl chloride: both should be considered carcinogenic – Styrene, the staple ingredient in many plastics, styrofoam, and many acrylics (styrene-acrylic): has recently been upgraded from ‘possibly’ carcinogen to ‘probably’ carcinogenic – Formaldhyde, present in many acrylics, is a known carcinogen – Benzene (may be present in trace amounts), is a known carcinogen – Methyl Methacrylate, not previously thought of as carcinogenic, has recently been show to be a potential ‘secondary carcinogen, during long term exposure (in rats). in addition to these bulk ingredients, there are many additional compounds that may also cause pose a cancer hazard, or exarcebate hazards posed by other compounds. The small print on packaging of some acrylic paint products for artists, (not just cadmiums), contains notices such as ‘contains an ingredient known in State of California to cause cancer, although further and more detailed information is often hard to come by. 

Safer Paint Strippers 

Fatal Incident involving Paint Stripper | OSHA

Exposure to some common paint stripping products can be very hazardous, and even fatal. HERE AN EXAMPLE (OSHA pdf… bathroom fitter)

Lethal Exposure to Methylene Chloride during Bathtub Refinishing (

OSHA lists several safer alternatives.

Solvents used in The Arts

A Babin and M McCann

Hidden Exposures from Acrylic Paint Products

SAFETY NOTE: a small number of acrylics now carry a note warning of a possible cancer hazard this may be related to a formaldehyde content / other common, but frequently undeclared, chemicals found in acrylics include glycol ether, ammonia, various low-level solvents (NMP, NEP, etc.), or the polymerization catalyst Triethylamine (TEA) which is known to cause eye damage in long exposures. Our advice always ensure airflow, (use fans and open windows), and wear lightweight organic vapor mask with active carbon filter

Scientific Studies on Solvent Toxicity Extracts from Selected Sources Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality: Organic Gases (Volatile Organic Compounds – VOCs) Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to 10 times higher) than outdoors.

VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands. Examples include: paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic solutions. Organic chemicals are widely used as ingredients in household products. Paints, varnishes, and wax all contain organic solvents, as do many cleaning, disinfecting, cosmetic, degreasing, and hobby products. Fuels are made up of organic chemicals. All of these products can release organic compounds while you are using them, and, to some degree, when they are stored.

Health Effects Eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. Some organics can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. Key signs or symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs include conjunctival irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, emesis, epistaxis, fatigue, dizziness. The ability of organic chemicals to cause health effects varies greatly from those that are highly toxic, to those with no known health effect. As with other pollutants, the extent and nature of the health effects will depend on many factors including level of exposure and length of time exposed. Eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory impairment are among the immediate symptoms that some people have experienced soon after exposure to some organics. At present, not much is known about what health effects occur from the levels of organics usually found in homes. Many organic compounds are known to cause cancer in animals; some are suspected of causing, or are known to cause, cancer in humans.

Princeton University

Non Water-Based Paints…oil paints, encaustic and egg tempera use linseed oil, wax and egg respectively as vehicles, although solvents are often used as a thinner and for cleanup. Turpentine and mineral spirits (paint thinner), for example, are used in oil painting mediums, for thinning, and for cleaning brushes. Alkyd paints use solvents as their vehicle. In addition many commercial paints used by artists also contain solvents. All solvents can cause defatting of the skin and dermatitis from prolonged or repeated exposure. Turpentine can also cause skin allergies and be absorbed through the skin…Acute inhalation of high concentrations of mineral spirits, turpentine vapors, and other solvents can cause narcosis, which can include symptoms of dizziness, headaches, drowsiness, nausea, fatigue, loss of coordination, coma, as well as respiratory irritation. Chronic inhalation of large amounts of solvents could result in decreased coordination, behavioral changes and brain damage…Chronic inhalation of turpentine can cause kidney damage and respiratory irritation and allergies. In the case of mineral spirits, this is usually due to chemical pneumonia caused by aspiration (breathing in) of the mineral spirits into the lungs after vomiting. Natural resins (copal, damar, rosin, Japanese Lacquer) may cause skin irritation or allergies. Rosin dust can cause asthma. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO)


Effects on humans The odour threshold of white spirit is quite low, and vapours can be detected at levels of 0.5-5 mg/m3. Tolerance of the odour may be developed. Eye irritation has been reported in connection with acute exposure down to a level of 600 mg/m3 (100 ppm). At higher levels respiratory irritation and more pronounced eye irritation occur. Acute CNS symptoms such as headache, drunkenness, dizziness and fatigue have been reported in several cases of occupational exposure. Controlled 7-h exposure to levels of 600 mg/m3 or more resulted in impaired balance during walking and to an increased reaction time. 

Exposure to 4000 mg/m3 for 50 min resulted in impaired performance in tests for perceptual speed and short-term memory. One case of cyanosis, apnoea (asphyxiation) and cardiac arrest after excessive inhalation exposure during painting has been reported. Ingestion of white spirit has been reported to produce gastrointestinal irritation with pain, vomiting and diarrhoea. Lesions of the mucous membranes in the oesophagus and the gastrointestinal tract followed the oral exposure. Due to its low viscosity and low surface tension, white spirit poses a risk of aspiration into the lungs following oral exposure. A few ml of solvent aspirated into the lungs is able to produce serious bronchopneumonia and 10-30 ml may be fatal. Prolonged dermal exposure to white spirit, e.g., resulting from wearing clothes that have been soaked or moistened by white spirit for hours, may produce irritation and dermatitis…Single cases of acute toxicity to the kidney, liver and bone marrow have been reported following exposure to white spirit at high levels. However, clinical studies reveal decreased erythrocyte, leucocyte and platelet counts, and increased mean corpuscular volume in exposed workers.

Similar haematological changes have been observed in animal studies. Numerous epidemiological studies have been performed involving painters with long-term exposure to white spirit. Increased incidence of complaints of memory impairment, fatigue, impaired concentration, irritability, dizziness, headache, anxiety and apathy have been demonstrated in several cross-sectional studies. Studies including neuropsychological tests have shown impaired ability in performing some of the tests. In some studies an overall reduction in cognitive functioning was noted to a degree that corresponded to a diagnosis of chronic toxic encephalopathy. In a few studies a dose-response relationship was established. This was the case in a comprehensive study in which painters predominantly exposed to white spirit were compared with non-exposed bricklayers. Painters with low solvent exposure were comparable to non-exposed bricklayers with regard to neuropsychological test results. However, the prevalence of impaired functioning increased with increasing exposure in the groups of painters with medium and high exposure. Environmental Health Perspectives Volume 107, Number 5, May 1999 “Chronic Toxic Encephalopathy in a Painter Exposed to Mixed Solvents” Robert G. Feldman [1,2]; Marcia Hillary Ratner [1] and Thomas Ptak [3] [1] Environmental and Occupational Neurology Program, Department of Neurology, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, MA [2] Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA 02215 USA; [3] Department of Radiology, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, MA 02218 USA 

This paper describes symptoms and findings in a 57-year-old painter who had been exposed to various organic solvents for over 30 years. He began to work as a painter at 16 years of age, frequently working in poorly ventilated areas; he used solvents to remove paint from the skin of his arms and hands at the end of each work shift. The patient and his family noticed impaired short-term memory function and changes in affect in his early forties, which progressed until after he stopped working and was thus no longer exposed to paints and solvents. After the patient’s exposures had ended, serial neuropsychological testing revealed persistent cognitive deficits without evidence of further progression, and improvement in some domains. Magnetic resonance imaging revealed global and symmetrical volume loss, involving more white than gray matter. The findings in this patient are consistent with chronic toxic encephalopathy and are differentiated from other dementing processes such as Alzheimer’s disease, multi-infarct (vascular) dementia, and alcoholic dementia. Previous descriptions in the literature of persistent neurobehavioral effects associated with chronic exposure to organic solvents corroborate the findings in this case. Annals of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences ISSN 0001-3765: ‘Solvent-related chronic toxic encephalopathy as a target in the worker’s mental health research’ Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciencias (2004) 

ANDREIA RAMOS [1], SILVIA R. JARDIM [1] and JOHO F. SILVA-FILHO [2] [1] Programa Organizacao do Trabalho e Sal de Mental (OTSAM) Instituto de Psiquiatria, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro [2] Decania Centro de Ciencias da Saude / Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Cidade Universitaria, 21944-590 Rio de Janeiro Manuscript received on September 3, 2003; accepted for publication on July 21, 2004; presented by Lucia Mendonca Previato ABSTRACT: The article is aimed at discussing the theoretical grounds which support the diagnosis of solventrelated chronic encephalopathy in the field of the worker’s mental health, having it as a target in this area. The psychiatric, neurological and labor health postulates which contribute to the multidisciplinary description of such diagnostic category are presented. Key words: solvents, chronic encephalopathy, diagnostic criteria, the worker’s mental health.

INTRODUCTION: Psychiatric disorders related to exposure to neurotoxins have determined different types of welfare benefits being granted by the welfare system in a number of countries, though the diagnosis provided to justify them does not always establish a clear relationship between the exposure and the disorder (Callender et al. 1997, Ramos et al. 1998, 2004, Ramos and Silva Filho 2001). The relative risk of a disability pension due to pre-senile dementia is higher among the workers exposed to solvents than in the control groups (Axelson et al. 1976, Mikkelsen 1980, Olsen and Sabroe 1980). There is a trend in making a diagnosis of neurotic disorder for workers who are exposed to neurotoxins and who are considered to be eligible for the welfare benefit. According to Lindstrom et al. (1984), in a Correspondence to: Andreia Ramos E-mail: study on solvent exposure, the exposure to this neurotoxin increases the risk of early pensions as a result of neurotic disorders, though early pensions due to alcohol addiction and other neuropsychiatric disorders do not grow in the presence of solvent exposure. 

Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that, most of the times, these workers present unspecific complaints. Arlien-Soborg et al. (1979) examined seventy wall painters after they had undergone health care due to solvent intoxication symptoms or suspected dementia. The authors discharged possible causes of organic mental disorder and found significant changes in the tests and assessment carried out (neurological test, brain computerized tomography). They concluded that the long-term exposure to solvents would gradually result in the development of a chronic brain syndrome called ‘wall painters chronic syndrome.’


by Michael McCann, PhD, CIH

In general, solvents are one of the most underrated hazards in art. They are used for a million purposes: to dissolve and mix with oils, resins, varnishes, inks; to remove paint, varnish, lacquers; to clean brushes, tools, silk screens and even hands. As a result, artists are continually being exposed to solvents.

Almost all organic solvents are poisonous if swallowed or inhaled in sufficient quantity, and most cause dermatitis after sufficient skin contact. High concentrations of most solvents can cause narcosis (dizziness, nausea, fatigue, loss of coordination, coma, and the like). This can increase the chances for mistakes and accidents.

As mentioned earlier, long-term exposure to high concentrations of many solvents can cause brain damage. In particular, aromatic hydrocarbons, aliphatic hydrocarbons and chlorinated hydrocarbons appear to be implicated. Some solvents – for example,benzene (benzol) and carbon tetrachloride – are so toxic that they shouldn’t be used. Other solvents – for example, acetone and ethanol (ethyl or grain alcohol)- are reasonably safe. Solvents fall into several classes with similar properties. If one member of a class of solvents is toxic, usually another safer member can be chosen.


are generally anaesthetics and irritants of the eyes and upper respiratory tract. In high concentrations, methanol (wood or methyl alcohol) can cause dizziness, intoxication, blurred vision and possible liver and kidney damage. If swallowed, it can cause blindness and even death. Ethanol, available as denatured alcohol containing some methanol, is a safer solvent. Amyl alcohol acts as on the nervous system causing dizziness, nausea, vomiting and double vision. Uses: shellac thinner, paint and varnish remover, lacquer thinners, etc.


are among the most dangerous solvents. They may be absorbed through the skin, although their major hazard is by inhalation. In general they are strong narcotics . The most dangerous is benzene (benzol), which causes chronic poisoning from the cumulative effect of exposure to small amounts. Its effects are destruction of bone marrow, leading to a loss of red and white blood cells,and sometimes leukemia. Toluene (toluol) doesn’t have the long term chronic effects of benzene on the bone marrow, but may cause liver and kidney damage. Its immediate effects can be more severe then those of benzene if a person is exposed to a high enough concentration. Toluene may also cause adverse reproductive effects. With proper ventilation, however, toluene is a suggested replacement for benzene. Xylene (xylol) is similar to toluene. Styrene is more toxic than toluene or xylene and may cause respiratory irritation, narcosis, liver, kidney and possibly nerve damage. Uses: resin solvent, paint and varnish remover, flourescent dye solvent, common silk screen wash-up, lacquer thinners, aerosol spray cans, etc. Page 1 of 3

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like aromatic hydrocarbons, are very hazardous. Some have been used as anaesthetics in the past, but were found to be too toxic. All of them dissolve the fatty layer of the skin and can cause dermatitis. They also cause liover and kidney damage. The drinking of alcohol after exposure to many chlorinated hydrocarbons can make people very sick. One of the most toxic chlorinated hydrocarbons is carbon tetrachloride and it shouldn’t be used. It can be absorbed through the skin and exposure to small amounts can cause severe liver and kidney damage. Exposure to larger amounts can cause unconsciousness and death, especially if alcoholic beverages are ingested.

Other toxic chlorinated hydrocarbons include tetracloroethane (acetylene tetrachloride), chloroform, ethylene dichloride, perchloroethylene and trichloroethylene. The last four solvents have been shown to cause liver cancer in mice. Methyl chloroform (1,1,1-trichloroethane) appears to be less toxic than other chlorinated hydrocarbons at low concentrations, but has caused many fatalities when inhaled at high concentrations (for example, “glue sniffing” or working in enclosed spaces). Methylene chloride (dichloromethane) is highly volatile and high concentrations may cause narcosis, lung irritation, pulmonary edema, and is a probable human carcinogen. Methylene chloride also decomposes in the body to form carbon monoxide and inhalation of large amounts has resulted in fatal heart attacks. People with heart problems and smokers are particularly at high risk. Although most of the chlorinated hydrocarbons are not flammable, they may decompose in the presence of ultraviolet light or excess heat (e.g., a lit cigarette) to form the poison gas phosgene. In general try to replace chlorinated hydrocarbons with less toxic solvents. Uses: wax, oil, resin, grease and plastics solvent, paint strippers.


also called petroleum distillates, tend to be less toxic than most other solvents. They have a mild narcotic effect and can cause lung irritation in large amounts. If ingested, they may cause pulmonary edema (chemical pneumonia) and possible death due to aspiration into the lungs. Petroleum distillates are also skin irritants. n-Hexane, one of the most volatile petroleum distillates, may cause peripheral neuropathy – nerve inflammation and possible paralysis of arms and legs – from chronic inhalation of large amounts. These symptoms will disappear after a couple of years, but sometimes, with very high exposures, permanent damage to the central nervous system can result. Hexane is found in “extremely flammable” rubber cements and their thinners, in some aerosol spray adhesives and other aerosol spray products,and in low-boiling naphtha (petroleum ether). In recent years, hexane has been replaced by the less toxic heptane in many products.

Other petroleum distillates in increasing order of boiling point are gasoline, benzine (VM&P Naphtha), mineral spirits (odorless paint thinner, turpentine substitutes, white spirits) and kerosene. Normal mineral spirits has about 15-20% aromatic hydrocarbons. Odorless mineral spirits and turpenoid have these more toxic aromatic hydrocarbons removed, and are recommended as substitutes for regular mineral spirits and turpentine. Uses: paint thinners, rubber cement thinners, silk screen poster inks, clean-up solvent, and similar products. ESTERS are eye, nose and throat irritants and have anesthetic effects. Most common acetates are not skin irritants or sensitizers. Ethyl acetate is the least toxic, followed by methyl and amyl acetates. They have good odor warning properties. Uses: lacquer, resin and plastics solvent.


recently have been found to be much more toxic than previously thought. Methyl cellosolve (ethylene glycol monomethyl ether) and butyl cellosolve (ethylene glycol monobutyl ether) were known to cause anemia and kidney damage. Cellosolve (ethylene glycol monoethyl ether) and its acetate were considered less toxic. Animal and human studies, however, show that cellosolve, methyl cellosolve, and their acetates can cause birth defects, miscarriages, testicular atrophy and sterility at low levels. All glycol ethers need study to determine if they also cause adverse reproductive effects. Uses: photoresists, color photography, lacquer thinners, paints,aerosol sprays.


cause narcosis and irritation to the eyes and upper respiratory tract in high concentrations. Their odor warning properties are a good indication of the degree of exposure. They also cause defatting of the skin upon prolonged exposure, resulting in dry, scaly, cracked skin. Acetone is one of the safest solvents (except for its high flammability) and does not seem to have any lasting effects. Methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) is more toxic than acetone. Methyl butyl ketone may cause peripheral neuropathy similar to that caused by n-hexane. Methyl ethyl ketone acts synergistically with both n-hexane and methyl butyl ketone to cause neuropathy at levels that neither would by themselves. Other highly toxic ketones Page 2 of 3

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include cyclohexanone and isophorone. Uses: Solvents for lacquers, oils, waxes, plastics, vinyl silk screen inks, and so forth. Another common solvent,


is a common oil paint and varnish thinner. Turpentines from many sources are skin irritants and sensitizers for many people, and can be absorbed through the skin. Their vapors are irritating to the eyes, nose and throat upon prolonged exposure, and some turpentines may cause severe kidney damage. Resulting symptoms includeheadaches, gastritis, anxiety and mental confusion. Turpentine is highly poisonous by ingestion, with one tablespoon possibly being fatal to a child.


(d-limonene) have been touted as non-toxic. they are definitely less hazardous by ingestion than most other solvents, although they have a citrus-like odor that has caused children to drink them when they have been carelessly left around. They can still make a child sick, but are less likely to cuase fatalities. there have been some rpeorts of skin, eye and respiratory irritation from their use. – excerpted from Health Hazards Manual for Artists, 4th ed., Lyons and Burford, New York NY (1994).

(c) copyright Michael McCann 1994

This article appears on Safe Painting courtesy of the Health in the Arts Program, University of Illinois at Chicago, who have curated a collection of these articles from their archive which are still relevant to artists today.