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Artists worry about toxic art supplies

Marketplace Staff Jan 29, 2011

Artists worry about toxic art supplies

Marketplace Staff Jan 29, 2011


JEREMY HOBSON: Christies Auction House is reporting sales of $5.2 billion for 2010, that marks the best year in the company’s 245-year history. That’s in part thanks to strong sales of impressionist and modern art. That’s good for Christies, but for the people who make their living making visual art, here’s a story of a serious workplace hazard.

Many art supplies contain lead and other dangerous compounds, as Tanya Ott reports.

TANYA OTT: Larry Stephens shakes a can of spray paint, then starts applying it to a canvas.

Stephens paint professionally under the name “Sinister.” He sells his work in galleries in Michigan and California. Most of the time he paints outside. But in winter, he’s indoors, wearing a respirator or a dust mask. It’s not enough.

LARRY STEPHENS: You know within a couple of hours I’ll start getting dizzy. You’ll end up coughing up paint the next morning. You’ll go to blow your nose and it’ll be green and red and yellow and whatever colors you’re using that day.

Experts say there are no large scale health studies of people who use art supplies. But Dr. Steven Marcus, who is New Jersey’s poison control chief, says lead, arsenic and cadmium are found in some paint pigments. And some glues and cements contain chemicals that can cause neurological damage. In one condition — called “wrist drop” — sufferers actually lose strength in their hands.

STEVEN MARCUS: For an artist, that’s their bread and butter. They lose strength in their hands and they can’t be an artist.

Most art supplies come with warnings — like using proper ventilation — but Marcus says they don’t really define “proper.” And then consider that some artists live and work in the same building.

MARCUS: You know you can’t wear the respirator 24/7.

Artist Larry Stephens knows this too well. About a year ago, doctors found a spot on his lung. He doesn’t know if it’s cancer because he hasn’t had any follow-up tests. He says can’t afford health insurance.

STEPHENS: Just not in the cards right now. I’m not going to go in debt for a spot on my lung that could be something or it might not be.

In the meantime, the U.S. Senate is considering legislation to update the Toxic Substances Control Act. That might help professional artists and hobbyists get a better picture on the true dangers they could face.

In Birmingham, Ala., I’m Tanya Ott for Marketplace.

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