I have seen and met a number of artists who are aware of the solvents and volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) in the materials they use. Most standard artists’ materials -student grade and many artist grade paints and other materials are pretty safe. Often these materials are used in schools and have to meet safety standards for use with children. Many fine art materials manufacturers are also increasingly aware of environmental impact and chemical safety, and are working to improve both safety and “green” factors of artists’ materials.
That’s the good news.
Many artists like to explore and innovate in their work. This can involve using novel materials – new etchants, pain systems, molding compounds, epoxy thermoset resins, and other materials. Many of these novel media are materials that were not really designed for the artist’s studio. Even relatively safe and familiar seeming materials like a two part epoxy resin can contain chemicals that require skin protection, solvent that require ventilation, and possibly even respiratory protection.
Now here’s the bad news.
That simple face mask that many people turn to for dust offers ZERO protection against solvent fumes, volatile organic compounds, and most chemicals. They protect against dust. Dust particles range in size from visible to micron sized – about 1/000 – 1/10 the thickness of a dime. Bacteria are similar in size to dust. The most dangerous carcinogenic particles are the size of tiny dust particles – or smaller (and you need a special mask if nanoparticles are a concern). Gases, fumes and “smells” are made up of little pieces of dust. Gases, fumes VOCs and “smells” are molecular. They are 10000x to 100,000x smaller than “dust”. And they can go right through that dust mask.
Even respirators and gas masks are not necessarily universal protection. Many rely on adsorption, absorption and reaction processes to trap toxic volatiles or to render them harmless. These processes may work well for entire classes of chemicals, but they don’t automatically work on EVERY possible molecule out there. Please do a little research on your materials. KNOW what types of solvent or VOC molecules you need to filter. And then research or ask a reputable manufacturer for information on breathing protection for that specific hazard.
There is a similar situation for gloves. Many people use a type of glove called “latex exam gloves”. These gloves are made for medical examinations. They protect patients from dirt and germs on a doctor’s hands and protect the doctor from germs and other materials. I’ll state this again because a surprising number of people – even some scientists – don;t seem to get their heads around it: Chemicals are made of molecules. Molecules are a LOT smaller than bacteria, dust and “stuff”.
Natural latex and artificial latices
Natural latex rubber is made from white liquid that oozes from rubber tree plants. It is a mixture of “rubber”, elastic long chain molecules, and other substances. The key thing to know about natural latex is that it is an emulsion.
If you cook or paint you have probably made emulsions. You mix to incompatible liquids together and they form a creamy liquid or paste – an emulsion. Sometimes you can add something to stabilize the emulsion, but if it is not stabilized it falls apart, like oil and vinegar in a home-made salad dressing.
If you look closely (or with a microscope) you can see that the emulsion is made of tiny droplets of one liquid inside the other. This structure is why two clear liquids produce a cloudy fluid when they are emulsified together. The light scatters off of the tiny droplets and cannot pass through the emulsified liquid.
Natural rubber latex is an emulsion in solid form. Microscopic stabilized droplet of solid rubbery polymer are stuck together as the latex is solidified into latex rubber. What happens when you glue a bunch of rubber balls together? You get gaps. Latex is full of tiny holes, too small for the eye to see. The holes are small enough to stop bacteria. bacteria are pretty big as microscopic objects go. The holes are too small for some viruses to pass through. But chemicals are made of molecules. Molecules are thousands of times smaller than viruses. Molecules will pass right through those natural latex exam gloves.
There are a number of rubbery materials sold on the market as “latex” or artificial latex. Natural rubber was discovered and used before we really know what it was. The name “latex became synonymous with a range of rubbery materials that had similar properties. “latex” often means no “rubber” but that same porous emulsion structure.
Non-latex materials have different chemical resistances
Fortunately there are alternatives to latex exam gloves that are still thin enough to let you use your fingers. However, you still need to KNOW what solvents and VOCs you need to protect yourself from. Different glove types are still made of long chain polymers with rubbery qualities. (if you want to know more comment and ask – i’m assuming you don’t want the polymer science firehose).
The polymer molecules that make up rubber glove materials are like twisted tangled shoelaces on a really tiny scale. A pile of shoelaces still has gaps, and very tiny molecules may be able to slip by the very very small gaps in a non-latex rubber.
But molecules also have chemical properties. This is true even when they are in nice solid stable forms like rubber gloves. Liquids and gases like solvent, “Vapor” and VOCs may have some solubility in your rubber glove material. If you choose the wrong glove, the chemcial you want to guard against can just silently dissolve right into the glove. When a chemical is soluble in a solid it can also permeate the solid – the solvent can slowly work it’s way to your skin.
So again, KNOW the chemicals you are working with and which ones are dangerous. KNOW whether you are using the right type of glove or skin protection. Research or just ask a manufacturer or lab supply sales rep for information.
Chemical Safety supplies and information
I recommend Fisher Scientific for their wide range of safety products. Browse around for information and ask someone for recommendations (Fisher website).
Yale has a video tutorial on safety for Fine Artists
For those whose thing is pyrotechnics
Choosing safer materials for classroom and other use
A general primer on EPA and health hazards from Art Materials
A little background on Gas masks, dust masks and respirators
Gas Mask Fact Sheet from the CDC
A high level view of the basic gas mask types and how they work
A high level view of how toxic gases are trapped
Latices, rubbers and gloves – some background
Guides to choosing gloves
Create Safely folks! Comment to ask questions. I’ll do my best and I’ll try not to get too technical.