Health and Safety in the Arts

While SAIC’s classrooms, studios, and workspaces are dedicated to the intellectual, creative, and personal growth of aspiring artists and designers at all stages of development, your creative efforts could be hazardous to your health and others’ if you use art making materials improperly.

There are many risks associated with art materials and art making processes that have the potential to cause injuries, illnesses, and fires. This website provides an overview of the hazards associated with art-making materials and processes and information about ways to select, use, and dispose of art materials to protect yourself and those working around you.

Protect Yourself—Introduction

Art-making materials can be hazardous, but that does not have to mean you cannot work with them. The most important thing is that you take precautions to keep yourself and others safe. By keeping highly flammable materials in metal cabinets and containers, using spray booths and ventilation, wearing protective gear, and knowing what to do in the event of an emergency, you can help keep SAIC a safe place for all kinds of artists and their practices.

Fire Hazards and Art Materials

Common art materials that may cause fires include flammable or combustible solvents, oily rags, chemical oxidizers, and compressed welding gases. To prevent fires, remove electrical equipment that may generate sparks. When dispensing flammable solvents from large metal containers, ground both containers to dissipate static electricity. Store oily or solvent-soaked rags in closed metal containers.

Controlling Hazards

Local exhaust ventilation systems capture contaminants (such as particulates or dusts, fumes, gases, and vapors) at their sources by exhausting the contaminants directly outdoors through a duct system. Local exhaust (e.g., spray booth, hood, or other mechanical means) is the required method of ventilation for making work that involves the use of toxic materials or dust. Processes such as spray painting, welding, acid etching, woodworking, or the use of flammable and toxic materials must use local exhaust ventilation. There are several spray booths located on campus:

Spray Booth Locations On-Campus
Building Suite Access Equipment
162 Building, 162 N. State St. 1702 Dormitory Spray Booth
33 Building, 33 E. Washington St. LL3-11 Graduate Studios Spray Booth
Sullivan Center, 36 S. Wabash Ave. 1248 All access Spray Booth
Sullivan Center, 36 S. Wabash Ave. 1248 All access Wax Exhaust
Sharp Building, 37 S. Wabash Ave. 307B All access Spray Booth
MacLean Center, 112 S. Michigan Ave. 1717 Painting and Drawing studios Spray Booth
280 building, 280 S. Columbus Dr. B1-33 All access Spray Booth
280 building, 280 S. Columbus Dr. 230 J Printmedia department Spray Booth
280 building, 280 S. Columbus Dr. 308A Painting and Drawing department Spray Booth

Personal Protective Equipment

To minimize hazardous exposure to chemicals or other physical agents, always substitute harmful materials or chemicals for a safe or less-hazardous material when possible. If a material cannot be substituted, use local exhaust ventilation. If these controls are not possible, it may be necessary to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, glasses, respirators, and appropriate clothing.

Storing, Handling, and Disposing of Art Materials and Other Chemicals

When incompatible chemicals are stored or mixed together, violent reactions may occur between them. To avoid fires and explosions, segregate incompatible chemicals in storage. For example, store acids and bases in separate containers, away from flammable and combustible liquids. Store chemical oxidizers such as chlorates, chromates, nitrates, and peroxides away from organic solvents and other readily combustible materials. Store flammable compressed gases in an upright position and separate flammable gases from compressed oxygen cylinders.

Store all flammable and combustible liquids in approved flammable liquid containers and cabinets. Avoid transferring chemicals into breakable containers, food containers, coffee containers, or containers with loose fitting lids. Dispose of all flammable, combustible, and other liquid waste in the designated hazardous waste containers for flammable and combustible liquids. For more information on how to store chemicals, review SAICs Chemical Hygiene Program.

Emergency Preparedness

Each floor is equipped with a house phone. Press the orange emergency button to report any injuries, illnesses, chemical spills, or any other emergency. In the event of a medical emergency, dial 911 and Campus Security (the orange emergency button) to report the nature of the emergency and location.

The information in this section was taken from Michael McCann's 2005 book Artist beware: The hazards in working with all art and craft materials and the precautions every artist and craftsperson should take; Thomas Ouemet's 2000 book Safety Guide for Art Studios; and Rossol Monona's 2001 The artist's complete health and safety guide.  

Chemicals and Your Health—Introduction

In order for a chemical to affect your health, it must enter your body and then reach an area of the body in a large enough concentration or dose to cause harm. Thus, the risk of developing illness a disease is directly linked to three factors:

  • How long and how often you were exposed
  • The toxicity of the chemical
  • The amount or concentration of the chemical you were exposed to


In addition, children, women who are pregnant or nursing, and people with heath conditions such as asthma, are at a higher risk of exposure to some chemicals in art materials. If you have a concern about how an art material may affect you due to a health condition, talk with a medical professional and/or the Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety.

Acute or Chronic Health Effects

Harmful or toxic materials can produce either an acute or chronic health effect. Acute health effects are typically sudden—you could experience symptoms within minutes or hours of exposure. Acute effects such as nausea, lightheadedness, or irritation are generally brief and reversible, but acute effects can also cause death in some instances. In contrast, a chronic health effect typically occurs after repeated or a prolonged period, usually years. In addition, chronic health effects like cancer and liver damage are not reversible.

This information is taken from Richard Cohen's 2002 book Industrial Toxicology as cited in Barbara Plog's Fundamentals of Industrial Hygiene 5th Edition published by the National Safety Council.

Handling Chemicals Properly

You could be exposed to chemical hazards through skin contact, inhalation, and ingestion; precautions must be taken whenever working with art-making materials. For example:

  • Read and understand the Safety Data Sheet (formerly called material safety data sheet) prior to using any material.
  • Wear personal protective equipment like gloves, safety glasses, and respirators, as recommended on the Safety Data Sheet.
  • Whenever possible, substitute nontoxic and less toxic solvents and chemicals for hazardous materials, like using turpenoid instead of mineral spirits. Never eat, drink, or smoke when working with art materials that contain chemicals.


If you are unfamiliar with the hazards associated with a material, contact the Office of Environmental Health and Safety for assistance. It is important to consider and remember that you could develop a variety of illnesses or sustain injury from exposure to art materials.

Safe Levels of Exposure

While there are no specific exposure thresholds for students, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) publishes exposure standards in the workplace. In addition, other governmental agencies and professional associations publish exposure guidelines for airborne concentrations at levels that nearly all healthy adults may be exposed to during any 8-hour work-shift of a 40-hour work week. Exposure limits for products' hazardous or toxic components are listed on each product's Safety Data sheet.

Hazards of Art Making—Introduction

Hazards in the arts are found in almost all media. Chemical hazards are particularly common because art materials can contain a wide variety of toxic ingredients. These include:

  • Solvents in paints, inks, adhesives, thinners, and paint removers
  • Heavy metals like lead and cadmium in pigments, glazes, solders
  • Dusts like silica, talcs, glazes, and dyes
  • Acids and alkalis in dyeing assistants, intaglio etches, and pickling baths


Some art materials can cause you to develop the same types of occupational illnesses and diseases as industrial workers—dermatitis, lead poisoning, silicosis, liver and kidney damage, nerve damage, reproductive hazards, carbon monoxide poisoning, cancer, and other ailments. Below are some examples of hazards associated with common art-making materials, processes, and activities.


Solvents are used to dissolve oils, resins, varnishes, and inks and to remove paint and lacquer. Because they are used so frequently used in everyday life, it is easy to underestimate the damage exposure to them could cause you. They can cause serious acute and chronic health effects if swallowed or inhaled in sufficient quantities. Some solvents can also cause dermatitis (skin inflammation) and narcosis (numbing, drowsiness, or unconsciousness). Always use the least toxic solvent possible. For example, solvents such as turpenoid are less toxic than solvents such as xylene or ethylene.

Aerosol Sprays

Aerosol sprays such as fixatives, spray paint, and spray adhesives are extremely dangerous when the fine mists produced by these products are inhaled. Use aerosol sprays in a spray room/booth or other well-ventilated area. Wear a respirator with a filter cartridge appropriate for the material.


Acids and alkalis (bases) used in ceramics, photo-chemistry, paint removers, and similar materials can be corrosive to the skin, eyes, respiratory system, and gastrointestinal system. Strong acids, such as hydrochloric, sulfuric, and nitric acid require special handling as outlined on chemicals Safety Data Sheets.

Paints and Pigments

Many paints and color pigments contain hazardous, heavy metals such as lead, chromium, cadmium, and barium, which can cause neurological, respiratory and reproductive damage. Never use a paint or pigment without a Safety Data Sheet.


Many chemicals used in photographic processing are corrosive and can cause severe skin and respiratory problems. The greatest hazards associated with photography include the preparation and mixing of powders. Never touch chemical powders or solutions with unprotected hands. In addition, take care not to stir up and inhale chemical dusts. Always ensure that the darkroom ventilation system is on and operating properly whenever you are working with photographic chemicals.

Plastics, Acrylics, and Resins

Plastic hazards result from making plastic and working with finished plastic. The greatest hazards associated with making plastic come from the monomers, solvents, fillers, catalysts, and hardeners. The hazards involved with finished plastics result mainly from methods used to work with plastic such as burning, polishing, sanding, and grinding plastics, which can produce harmful gases and dusts.

  • Acrylics and resins are also hazardous. Components of acrylics can include harmful materials that are irritants, explosive and flammable. Inhalation is the main hazard associated with these materials, and working in a spray room or booth with the appropriate respirator is required while working with them.
  • Resins used in laminating, casting, glues and coatings are also skin irritants, sensitizers, and suspected carcinogens. Avoid skin contact and inhalation while working with resins. Contact the Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety to discuss the safe use of resins in SAIC facilities.


Ceramic Clay and Glazes

Clay contains silica and talc, which can be hazardous if inhaled. Long-term inhalation of silicates can cause respiratory diseases such as silicosis. When handling and mixing clay, use exhaust ventilation and wear a particulate respirator.

  • Glazes can also contain materials such as silica, feldspar, and talc. Wear a particulate respirator and/or use exhaust ventilation when mixing or spraying glazes. Some glazes also contain harmful and toxic metals such as cadmium, lead, or cobalt. Be sure to dispose of glazes that contain toxic ingredients such as these as Hazardous Waste.
  • Toxic fumes and gases are often produced during the firing process. Ensure that kilns are properly closed and secure, and the exhaust ventilation system is on and properly working.



There are many hazards associated with welding—burns, eye damage from ultraviolet rays, and lung irritation from inhaling toxic fumes like manganese, nickel, copper, zinc, and ozone that are generated during the welding process. It is imperative that exhaust ventilation is used for all welding processes. Welders should also take care when handling compressed gas cylinders to avoid possible explosions.


Physical hazards (such as noise, flying debris, lifting, pinching, and cutting), inhalation of sawdust, and exposure to adhesives are all associated with woodworking activities. The long-term inhalation of sawdust can cause chronic respiratory illnesses, and the sawdust generated from some types of wood can induce allergic reactions. Solvent-based adhesive coating can also cause inhalation hazards and allergic reactions. When operating equipment, make sure that the dust collection system is operating and wear appropriate personal protective equipment.

Safety Data Sheets—Introduction

When choosing an art material, review and understand its known hazards by reading the product label and Safety Data Sheet (SDS). Safety Data Sheets provide detailed information—such as toxicity, flammability, reactivity, and precautions for safe handling—about specific chemicals or products. They are useful in your process of material selection and critical for the safe handling of emergency situations.

Because of their importance, SAIC is legally required to make them readily available to the community. Reading, understanding, and following the guidelines in a material’s SDS can prevent harmful exposure to yourself and others around you.

Product Labels

Product labels provide initial information about the hazards of a product such as the name of the product, address, emergency phone number, and any warnings related to the materials. Product labels must indicate if there are any long term or chronic hazards such as if the product is a carcinogen and how to use the product safely.


Toxicity is the ability of a substance to produce an unwanted effect when it has reaches a sufficient concentration at a certain site in the body. Please note that even materials of low toxicity that are normally considered safe can lead to accidents and toxic exposures if handling procedures and precautions are not taken.


Flammability is determined by the temperature at which something will burn or ignite. With respect to reactivity, chemicals have the potential to react to other chemicals or certain physical conditions such as air, certain temperatures, and water.

When chemical reactions are not managed properly, they can create harmful outcomes such toxic fumes, fires and explosions.

Online Resources

SDSs can be found electronically at MSDS online or in each shop/fabrication studio. If you cannot find the appropriate Safety Data Sheet, send an email to the Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety ( and provide the following information:

  • Product name, as printed on the label
  • Manufacturer or distributor name
  • Catalog or product number