SAFETY CONCERNS FOR PREGNANT PAINTERS
© 1997-2008 by Alessandra Kelley
Many of the common substances, the solvents, varnishes, inks, paints, and pigments used by painters and other artists are hazardous. Most of us know this, but what we may not know is how narrow the scope of our knowledge is. When I became pregnant, I discovered that, although there are numerous good reference works to warn of specific dangers, there is little specifically aimed at the special requirements of pregnant women.
When I realized this, and after I had gleaned what information I could from the various reference books available, I underwent genetic counseling (a prenatal procedure I heartily endorse for all women concerned about possible hereditary or environmental problems). I was given a large number of useful handouts, which I have integrated with what I found in the books to produce, I hope, a clear, basic guideline of use to painters.
A cautionary note: I am not a doctor, I am an inquisitive artist. This information was cutting-edge in 1996, but will no doubt eventually need updating. I mean it as a quick reference and starting point for concerned artists. Please see “Recommended Reading” at the end of this document for more information, and don’t ever be shy about asking your obstetrician.
In addition to the normal worries of hazardous art materials (ie mutagens, carcinogens, etc.), the pregnant painter has special concerns. Not only is she more susceptible to toxins as her metabolism changes, she must also watch out for substances which pose especial risks to her unborn child. The words for these substances are fetotoxin (or embryotoxin), a substance which can kill an unborn baby, and teratogen, one which can cause serious birth defects (Teratogen is an especially helpful word to know when searching indices.).
Many solvents are teratogenic or fetotoxic; these include paint removers like benzene, toluene, and xylene, and the various glycol ethers, which are solvents for lacquers, inks, paints, and varnishes. Turpentine and odorless mineral spirits, although irritating to the skin and lungs and poisonous if ingested, pose no extra threat to the unborn baby. To be on the safe side, I did not paint with oils at all during my pregnancy, using only acrylics and egg tempera. Watercolor also would pose minimal risk.
A surprising number of common pigments have been shown to be hazardous. I will go color group by color group, pointing out the most dangerous pigments, the borderline ones, and the safe ones, as well as a few difficult cases. When the evidence is conflicting, I tend to go with the more alarming news just to be safe.
There are a great many red pigments, and happily many of them are perfectly safe to use during pregnancy (see the reference lists at the end of this article); most of these are earth colors, rather soft in tone.
Safe reds include all the earth reds (English Red, Red Ochre, Venetian Red, etc.), Mars Red and other Red Oxides, and Ultramarine Red, a weak, transparent pinkish red related to Ultramarine Blue.
Unfortunately, the bright reds are more problematic.
All cadmium colors, including Cadmium Reds and Cadmium-Barium Reds, are teratogens and embryotoxins, in addition to their other carcinogenic and toxic properties.
Vermilion, which contains mercury, is vilified in all the art books, and exposure to mercury can cause serious birth defects (I should point out that the toxicity review I received claimed that the greatest danger was with organic (carbon-containing) mercury compounds, not inorganic ones like vermilion (mercuric sulfide). Even so I chose not to use vermilion while pregnant.).
There are modern synthetic organic reds such as Benzimidazolone Maroon, Thioindigoid Red, and Quinacridone Red, which are bright and transparent and said to be safe. However, as far as I know, none of the synthetic organics have been tested for teratogenic or embryotoxic properties; I would assume them to be unsafe for pregnant women until proven otherwise.
Lithol Red, a synthetic organic, is a carcinogen.
Cadmium Orange is a teratogen and embryotoxin (see Cadmium Red, above).
Synthetic organic oranges include Benzimidazolone Orange, Perinone Orange, and Quinacridone Gold. (See “Reds” for my objections to them.)
Safe oranges include Mars Orange and any orange Ochres.
Cadmium Yellows are teratogens and embryotoxins (see Cadmium Red, above).
Diarylide Yellow, a synthetic organic, is a teratogen and suspected carcinogen (it contains polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs).
Naples Yellow and Chrome Yellow contain lead and are teratogens.
Cobalt Yellow, or Aureolin, is poisonous due to cobalt.
Benzimidazolone Yellow H3G, Nickel Azo Yellow, and Titanium Yellow contain nickel, a skin irritant.
Synthetic organics include the Hansa Yellows, which studies have shown might be both toxic and cancer-promoting, and Arylide Yellows. (See “Reds” for my general objections to synthetic organic pigments.)
Mars Yellow and Yellow Ochre are perfectly safe.
Almost all greens contain chromium, cobalt, or copper, all of which are poisonous and cause or are suspected to cause birth defects and abnormalities.
Phthalocyanine Green, probably the single most popular green today, can cause birth defects and miscarriages due to the presence of copper. It has in the past been contaminated with PCBs.
Chromium, a carcinogen which causes birth defects, is found in Viridian and Chromium Oxide Green.
Cobalt Green contains cobalt.
Green Gold contains nickel.
There are two safe greens: Green Earth (also called Terre Vert) and Ultramarine Green. Both, regrettably, are weak, soft, and transparent. They are also very rare. No acrylics manufacturer, to my knowledge, makes either of them. The only brands of oil paint that I know produce Ultramarine Green at the time of this writing are Maimeri Artisti and Winsor & Newton Artists Oils. Green Earths are more numerous, but one must take care that they have not been adulterated with one of the poisonous greens to produce a stronger color. Brands that produce unadulterated Green Earths include Lapis Artists Oils, Old Holland Classic Oil Colours, Schmincke-Mussini Resin-Oil Colours, and Williamsburg Handmade Oil Colors.
Phthalocyanine Blue has the same problems as Phthalocyanine Green (i.e. it is both a teratogen and an embryotoxin and older batches may be contaminated with PCBs).
Cerulean Blue and Cobalt Blue contain cobalt.
Indanthrone Blue is a synthetic organic. (See “Reds” for my objections to synthetic organic pigments.)
Manganese Blue contains manganese, which appears to be a mutagen in large doses.
The safest blue is Ultramarine Blue. Prussian Blue appears acceptable. Michael McCann (see bibliography) in 1979 said Prussian Blue can produce toxic hydrogen cyanide gas if overheated or exposed to strong UV radiation or hot acid. However, the reproductive toxicity review I was given in 1995 said that ferrocyanides (Prussian Blue is ferric ferrocyanide) are used as anticaking agents in table salt and precipitants in wines, which is either reassuring or unsettling, depending on how you look at it. I chose to use Prussian Blue while pregnant, if only because the range of color mixes, especially greens, with Ultramarine alone is not broad enough.
Cobalt Violet and Manganese Violet, as might be expected, are poisonous.
Dioxazine Purple and Quinacridone Violet are synthetic organics. (See “Reds” for my objections to synthetic organics.)
Ultramarine Violet is safe, and much more common than Ultramarine Green, although it shares its problems of transparency and lack of intensity.
Mars Violet is safe.
Burnt Umber and Raw Umber contain manganese. So does Mars Brown.
Burnt Sienna and Raw Sienna are safe.
Lamp Black can cause cancer by skin contact, but is not an especial danger to an unborn baby.
Graphite dust is highly toxic if inhaled.
Ivory Black and Mars Black are safe.
Flake White is a teratogen; it contains lead and can be both acutely (instantly) or chronically (long-term) toxic.
Zinc White, an antiseptic, can be moderately irritating if swallowed.
Titanium White is safe.
A careful reader will have noted that a palette of strictly safe colors is lacking some things. There are no very bright reds or yellows, and the green situation is hopeless — not only are the only two safe greens pale and hard to find, but also there are no bright yellows or blues suitable to mix any others. What to do?
Clearly some compromise is necessary if one doesn’t want to give up painting for the duration. One could take up the challenge of a severely limited palette; it is still possible to come up with some extraordinary effects using only the colors listed, and the discipline of having to think very carefully about one’s color mixes can be very helpful. Or one could consider painting in egg tempera, where all colors are brighter.
However, it is a lot of work at a time when one has other things on one’s mind. One might instead want to add a few of those doubtful synthetic organic colors, or perhaps a nickel yellow to brighten things up a bit. As I mentioned, when I was pregnant I used Prussian Blue, in spite of some doubts, to get a brighter green than I could otherwise mix. I have at other times gotten a near-cadmium brilliance by glazing Quinacridone Red over Mars Red. With proper precautions (I paint in a protective apron and latex gloves) you might consider it worth the risk.
The important thing is to know what you’re working with and what the risks are. I list a few books below which you ought to know about, if you don’t already have them. Finally, I cannot recommend genetic counseling highly enough. It’s inexpensive (although not many hospitals in the USA offer it), it brings great peace of mind, and you’ll get the most up-to-date information.
Gottsegen, Mark David. The Painter’s Handbook, Watson-Guptill Publications, New York 1993. McCann, Michael. Artist Beware, Watson-Guptill Publications, New York 1979. McCann, Michael. Health Hazards Manual for Artists, Nick Lyons Books, New York 1985.
Burnt Sienna, Caput Mortuum, English Red, Flesh Ochre, Gold Ochre, Green Earth/Terre Vert, Indian Red, Iron Oxides (except for Mars Brown), Ivory Black, Mars Black, Orange, Red, Violet, and Yellow Ochres (naturally-colored clays, mostly yellowish) Raw Sienna, Red Ochre, Terre Vert/Green Earth Titanium White, Transparent Red Oxide (also yellow and orange), Ultramarine Blue, Green, Red, and Violet, Venetian Red, Yellow Ochre.
MODERATELY RISKY PIGMENTS, MOSTLY SYNTHETIC ORGANICS
Alizarin Crimson, Arylide Yellow, Benzimidazolone Maroon, Benzimidazolone Orange, Dioxazine Purple, Green Gold, Indanthrone Blue, Nickel Azo Yellow, Perinone Orange, Prussian Blue, Quinacridone Gold, Red, and Violet, Thioindigoid Red, Titanium Yellow, Zinc White
Pigments marked with an * are teratogenic or fetotoxic in humans and/or lab animals.
*Cadmium Reds, Yellows, and Orange
*Cadmium-Barium Reds, Yellows, and Orange
Chromium Oxide Green
Cobalt Blue, Green, Violet, and Yellow