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"For the use and good and profit of anyone who wants to enter this profession."
-- Cennino Cennini, sometime before 1437

Safety Concerns for Pregnant Painters

© Copyright 1997 - 2010 Alessandra Kelley

Permission is given to disseminate this paper in its current form, including copyright information.

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. I am grateful to all the artists and scientists who did the research this essay is based on. Please see the bibliography below for my sources.

A cautionary note: I am not a doctor, I am an inquisitive artist. This paper was begun in 1996, and has been somewhat updated since then. I mean it as a quick reference and starting point for concerned artists. I cannot and do not make claims as to how complete or accurate this information is, although I have tried to make it as accurate and understandable as I can. Please see "Recommended Reading" at the end of this document, 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 acceptable 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 sure. I will identify each by its common English name and by its Colour Index Name, which identifies the exact chemical pigment used (That is, a paint can have all sorts of names -- "Phthalocyanine Blue", "Thalo Blue", "Winsor Blue". "Monastral Blue", "Peacock Blue" -- but if they all are identified as PB 15 on the label, they all contain the pigment Phthalocyanine Blue).

No dry pigment is completely safe. They are microscopically small, and even the most benign of them is a serious breathing hazard. Furthermore, they can contaminate the home environment, as they are too small to clean up completely. Please always wear an OSHA-approved breathing mask and preferably gloves and a protective apron whenever handling dry pigments, and please only use them in your studio, not the home.

IMPORTANT: "[N]one of the organic pigments have ever been studied for teratogenic effects, reproductive effects, or cancer." (Monona Rossol) This is pretty outrageous, but what it means is that none of the organic pigments -- I'll identify a number of them below -- can be trusted. An organic pigment is one that contains carbon; they are usually more complex than inorganic pigments. For instance, all the Mars colors are inorganic; they are variations of rust, iron oxide. They basically consist of iron and oxygen, but no carbon. An example of an organic pigment would be quinacridone gold, which has an extremely complicated structure including carbon. Many organic pigments are closely related to known carcinogens. ORGANIC PIGMENTS MUST BE CONSIDERED UNSAFE.

Reds

There are a great many red pigments, and happily many of them are acceptable to use during pregnancy (see the reference lists at the end of this article); most of these are earth colors, rather soft in tone.

Accepteble reds include all the earth reds (English Red, Red Ochre, Venetian Red, etc. All of these have the Colour Index Name PR 101), Mars Red (PR 101) and other Red Oxides (PR 101), and Ultramarine Red (PV 15), a weak, transparent pinkish red related to Ultramarine Blue (PB 29).

Even these must be handled with care. Earth reds and Mars reds and red oxides are all variations of iron oxide, rust (Note they all have the same Colour Index Name, PR 101). Pregnant women must be very careful not to inhale them, as they can upset the essential mineral balance of their bodies. Do wear a mask.

Unfortunately, the bright reds are more problematic.

All cadmium colors, including Cadmium Reds (PR 108:1 PR 113) and Cadmium-Barium Reds (PR 108, PR 113:1), are teratogens and embryotoxins, in addition to their other carcinogenic and toxic properties.

Vermilion (PR 106), 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). But it's still very nasty.).

Organic red pigments include Benzimidazolone Maroon (PR 175), Thioindigoid Red (PR 88 MRS, PR 181), and Quinacridone Reds (PR 122, PR 192, PR 207, PV 19)). They are listed as "nontoxic", but they have NEVER ACTUALLY BEEN TESTED for teratogenic or embryotoxic properties. Avoid them.

Oranges

Cadmium Orange (PO 20, PO 20:1) is a teratogen and embryotoxin (see Cadmium Red, above).

Organic oranges include Benzimidazolone Orange (PO 36, PO 60, PO 62), Perinone Orange (PO 43), and Quinacridone Gold (PO 48, PO 49). (See "Reds" for my objections to them.)

Acceptable oranges include Mars Orange (PY 42) and any orange Ochres (PR 101).

Yellows

Cadmium Yellows (PY 35, PY 35:1, PY 37, PY 37:1) 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 (PY 41) and Chrome Yellow contain lead and are teratogens.

Cobalt Yellow (PY 40), or Aureolin, is poisonous due to cobalt.

Benzimidazolone Yellow H3G (PY 154), Nickel Azo Yellow (PY 150), and Titanium Yellow (PY 53) contain nickel, a skin irritant.

Organics include the Hansa Yellows (PY 1, PY 3), also called Arylide Yellows, which studies have shown might be both toxic and cancer-promoting. (See "Reds" for my general objections to synthetic organic pigments.)

Mars Yellow (PY 42) and Yellow Ochre (PY 43) are acceptable.

Greens

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 (PG 7, PG 36), 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 -- and it still often is; "phthalocyanine pigment manufacture is being done primarily in foreign countries where safety regulations are not as strict . . . enforcement of import regulations on these substances has been very lax of late" (M. Rossol)

Chromium, a carcinogen which causes birth defects, is found in Viridian (PG 18) and Chromium Oxide Green (PG 17).

Cobalt Green (PG 19) contains cobalt.

Green Gold (PG 10) contains nickel.

There are two acceptable greens: Green Earth (PG 23) (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.

Blues

Phthalocyanine Blue (PB 15, PB 16) has the same problems as Phthalocyanine Green (i.e. it is both a teratogen and an embryotoxin and is almost certain to be contaminated with PCBs, even these days).

Cerulean Blue (PB 35) and Cobalt Blue (PB 28) contain cobalt.

Indanthrone Blue (PB 60) is organic. (See "Reds" for my objections to synthetic organic pigments.)

Manganese Blue (PB 33) contains manganese, which appears to be a mutagen in large doses. This may soon be no more than a historical note; Manganese Blue is no longer sold (It was too environmentally damaging to manufacture).

Prussian Blue (PB 27) can produce poisonous cyanide under mild alkaline and acidic conditions. The reproductive toxicity review I was given in 1995 did not mention this, saying that ferrocyanides (Prussian Blue is ferric ferrocyanide) were used as anticaking agents in table salt and precipitants in wines. At that time I chose to use Prussian Blue, but with this new information I would certainly not if pregnant.

The least dangerous blue is Ultramarine Blue (PB 29).

Violets

Cobalt Violet (PV 14) and Manganese Violet (PV 16), as might be expected, are poisonous.

Dioxazine Purple (PV 23 RS, PV 23 BS) and Quinacridone Violet (PV 19) are organic pigments. (See "Reds" for my objections to synthetic organics.)

Ultramarine Violet (PV 15) is relatively benign, and much more common than Ultramarine Green, although it shares its problems of transparency and lack of intensity.

Mars Violet (PR 101) is acceptable.

Browns

Burnt Umber and Raw Umber contain manganese. So does Mars Brown (PBr 6).

Burnt Sienna and Raw Sienna are acceptable.

Unfortunately, the Colour Index Name is identical for all Umbers and Siennas: PBr 7. You have to go with the name of the pigment to tell the difference.

Blacks

Lamp Black (PBk 6) can cause cancer by skin contact, but is not an especial danger to an unborn baby.

Graphite (PBk 10) dust is highly toxic if inhaled.

Ivory Black (PBk 9) and Mars Black (PBk 11) are acceptable.

Whites

Flake White (PW 1) is a teratogen; it contains lead and can be both acutely (instantly) or chronically (long-term) toxic.

Zinc White (PW 4), an antiseptic, can be moderately irritating if swallowed.

Titanium White (PW 6) is acceptable.

***

A careful reader will have noted that a palette of strictly acceptable 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 safest 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.

Beware organic pigments. Pretty though they are, labeling requirements and testing are vague enough that you and your unborn child might risk being guinea pigs. No matter what, use proper precautions (I paint in a protective apron and latex gloves).

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.

Bibliography, Sources, and Recommended Reading

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.

O'Hanlon, George. "Zinc White -- Problems in Oil Paint: 28-Year Study Exposes Problems in Oil Paint". (On the Natural Pigments LLC website)

"Paint and Pregnancy" on the Illinois Teratogen Information Service website.

Rossol, Monona. Artists Complete Health & Safety Guide 3rd Edition, Watson-Guptill Publications, New York 2001.

Pigments With Lowest Risk

Burnt Sienna (PBr 7)
Caput Mortuum (PR 101)
English Red (PR 101)
Flesh Ochre (PY 43 or PR 101)
Gold Ochre (PY 43)
Green Earth (PG 23)
Indian Red (PR 101)
Iron Oxides (PY 42, PR 101, PBk 11) (except for Mars Brown (PBr 6))
Ivory Black (PBk 9)
Mars Black (PBk 11)
Mars Orange (PY 42)
Mars Red (PR 101)
Mars Violet (PR 101)
Mars Yellow (PY 42)
Ochres (naturally-colored clays, mostly yellowish) (PY 43)
Raw Sienna (PBr 7)
Red Ochre (PR 101)
Terre Vert (PG 23)
Titanium White (PW6)
Transparent Red Oxide (PR 101)
Transparent Yellow Oxide (PY 43)
Ultramarine Blue (PB 29)
Ultramarine Green
Ultramarine Red (PV 15)
Ultramarine Violet (PV 15)
Venetian Red (PR 101)
Yellow Ochre (PY 43)

Pigments With Moderate Risk

Titanium Yellow (PY 53)
Zinc White (PW 4)

Hazardous Pigments

Pigments marked with an * are teratogenic or fetotoxic in humans and/or lab animals

Pigments marked with an (O) are organic

Alizarin Crimson (PR 83)(O)
Arylide Yellows (PY 1, PY 3) (O)
Aureolin (PY 40)
Benzimidazolone Maroon (PR 175)(O)
Benzimidazolone Orange (PO 36, PO 60) (O)
Burnt Umber (PBr 7)
*Cadmium Orange (PO 20)
*Cadmium Red (PR 108:1)
*Cadmium Yellows (PY 35, PY 37)
*Cadmium-Barium Oranges (PO 20:1, PO 23:1)
*Cadmium-Barium Reds(PR 108, PR 113:1)
*Cadmium-Barium Yellows (PY 35:1, PY 37:1)
*Cadmium Vermilion Orange (PO 23)
*Cadmium Vermilion Red (PR 113)
Cerulean Blue (PB 35)
*Chrome Yellow
Chromium Oxide Green (PG 17)
Cobalt Blue (PB 28)
Cobalt Green (PG 19)
Cobalt Violet (PV 14)
Cobalt Yellow (PY 40)
*Diarylide Yellow
Dioxazine Purple (PV 23 RS, PV 23 BS)(O)
*Flake White (PW 1)
Graphite (PBk 10)
Green Gold (PG 10)
Hansa Yellows (PY 1, PY 3)
Hydrated Chromium Oxide Green (PG 18)
Indanthrone Blue (PB 60)(O)
Lamp Black (PBk 6)
Lithol Red
Mars Brown (PBr 6)
Manganese Blue (PB 33)
Manganese Violet (PV 16)
Naphthol Reds (PR 5, PR 7, PR 9, PR 14, PR 112, PR 119, PR 170, PR 188) (O)
*Naples Yellow (PY 41)
Nickel Azo Yellow (PY 150)
Oxide of Chromium (PG 17)
Perinone Orange (PO 43) (O)
*Phthalocyanine Blue (PB 15, PB 16)
*Phthalocyanine Green (PG 7, PG 36)
Prussian Blue (PB 27)
Quinacridone Gold (PO 48) (O)
Quinacridone Magenta (PR 122) (O)
Quinacridone Red (PR 192, PV 19) (O)
Quinacridone Scarlet (PR 207) (O)
Quinacridone Violet (PV 19)(O)
Raw Umber (PBr 7)
Thioindigoid Red (PR 88 MRS, PR 181)(O)
Toluidine Red
Vermilion (PR 106)
Viridian (PG 18)