Miscarriages, birth defects, sterility, loss of sex drive-all
of these, and more, have come to be associated in recent years
with chemical exposures, and they have come to be of serious
concern to artists, no matter what their gender.
A few basic facts help explain why:
* Between 30 and 80 percent of all conceptions end in miscarriage, stillbirth, or early infant death.
* At least 7 percent of all newborn children have birth defects, or will develop them.
* Men's sperm counts have decreased by 30 to 40 percent during the last thirty years.
What causes these reproductive problems? Obviously no one
single factor is responsible, but research has suggested that
several environmental factors (such as radiation, viruses, drugs,
and chemicals) cause between 5 and 11 percent of all birth
defects. Further, the multitude of toxic chemicals in our
environment has aroused concern that they may be partly
responsible for the high rate of miscarriages.
Since you are likely to be one of the 78.5 million artists,
craftspeople, or hobbyists in the U.S., chances are also that you
work with just such toxic materials. Whether you are an amateur
or professional, whether you paint, sculpt, work in glass,
photography, wood, textiles, leather, ceramics, or jewelry, or
if you teach art of any kind, the materials you use may be
harmful to your health unless you take adequate precautions.
What is more, these materials may affect you ability to conceive
and give birth to healthy children.
This fact sheet will help you cope with this problem. It
* describes the effects on the reproductive systems caused by
common toxic substances used by artists, and
* gives you practical tips about how to work safely.
What is a Toxic Substance?
A toxic substance is a poison which can damage your body's
organ systems when you are overexposed to it. Some substances
are so toxic that just one exposure to a tiny quantity can
produce harmful effects. More often, the substance is less toxic
and damages the body through repeated exposures over months or
Toxic substances come in many forms:
* Vapors from such things as turpentine, toluene, or other
solvents in paint removers, lacquer thinners, silk screen inks,
etc., which evaporate from open containers. etc., which evaporate from open containers.
* Mists accumulated in the air from spraying paints or
fixatives, air brushing, using spray guns, etc.
* Gases from etching metals, working with photographic baths,
welding, or firing kilns.
* Metallic fumes from welding, soldering, or foundry casting.
* Dusts from pottery making, mixing dry pigments or dyes,
grinding, and woodworking.
How Toxic Substances Enter the Body
Toxic substances enter the body in three principal ways.
(1) Absorption through the skin. For example, you can absorb
a lacquer thinner or turpentine if it splashes your skin.
(2) Inhalation through nose and mouth. For example, you can
inhale dusts while you mix dyes or pottery glazes, especially if
you work without adequate precautions.
(3) Ingestion through eating, drinking, or smoking in your
work area. For example, dusts can mingle with food left in an
open container while you mix a glaze.
What Are the Reproductive Effects of Toxic Substances?
Toxic substances and some physical agents produce various
effects on the reproductive systems of both men and women and on
pregnant women and their fetuses. These are summarized below and
listed in Table 1.
Effects on Reproductive System
Both men's and women's reproductive systems can be affected.
In men, some toxins such as manganese and antimony compounds
interfere with sex drive and may cause impotence. Others,
cadmium and lead, may cause testicular damage. In women,
toluene, xylene, and formaldehyde may cause menstrual disorders.
Other toxins, such as lead or benzene, are called mutagens
because they change the genetic structure of men's and women's
chromosomes and cause mutations in the first and future
generations of offspring.
Risks to the Fetus
Once a pregnant woman has absorbed, inhaled, or ingested a
toxic substance, the toxin circulates through her bloodstream,
and, in many instances, it can pass through the placenta. The
type of damage it causes depends upon the stage of pregnancy, the
amount of exposure, and the nature of the toxin.
During the first trimester, when organ development occurs,
chemicals such as pentachlorophenol, lithium, mercury and ethyl
alcohol can interfere with normal organ development, causing
birth defects. These chemicals are known as teratogens.
Concentrations of them which could not harm the mother are
capable of causing harmful birth defects.
Toxic substances such as lead and carbon monoxide also can
poison the fetus to cause miscarriages or spontaneous abortions.
These usually occur when concentrations are high-high enough so
they might also affect the mother.
An artist may be more vulnerable to toxic chemicals during
pregnancy than at other times, due to some of the physiological
changes which occur in the body during pregnancy. For example,
higher concentrations of solvents can circulate through the
bloodstream during pregnancy, because a pregnant woman's blood
volume increases by 30 to 40%. This increase means that the
amount of iron in the blood decreases, so a pregnant artist may
become more vulnerable to chemicals (such as lead, benzene, and
carbon monoxide) which can cause anemia.
There are also higher concentrations of inhaled substances in
the lungs of a pregnant artist, because she needs more oxygen and
breathes more deeply, thus becoming more susceptible to
respiratory problems. The increased strain upon the respiratory
system might make it inadvisable for a pregnant woman to wear a
respirator for extended periods, because a respirator itself
increases breathing resistance.
Risks of Toxic Exposure after Birth
Infants and children also can be affected by their parents'
exposure to toxins. For example, mercury poisoning in infants
has been caused by mercury that was present in breast milk.
Solvents have also been found in breast milk. Children can be
exposed if they come in contact with their parents' work clothes,
shoes, or unprotected hair, or if they are allowed to play in a
studio or work area.
Chemical and Physical Agents Which Cause Reproductive Effects
Table 2 lists many of the chemicals found in art materials
which can cause reproductive problems in humans and/or animals.
Unfortunately, this list is not complete for two reasons. First,
most chemicals never have been studied to see if they cause
adverse reproductive effects. Second, for the sake of economy
and simplicity, chemicals which are rarely used have not been
included in this list. The list, however, does include chemicals
which, so far, have been found to cause reproductive problems
only in animals. If a chemical can cause such an effect in
animals, it is accordingly highly suspect in humans, so these
chemicals known to cause human reproductive effects.
Table 2 additionally lists several physical agents -
radiation, heat, noise and vibration - which can adversely affect
reproduction. These, too, concern artists and craftspeople who
may be exposed to them.
If you are planning to have children and you know a substance
you use has reproductive effects, do not use it. Unfortunately,
no one knows what levels of exposure to a toxic substance are
safe for sperm, egg, or fetus. Therefore, if you are using a
material which can get into your body through inhalation or skin
absorption, it is obviously advisable to stop using this material
from conception until breast feeding has ceased. (Why risk the
unknown when the inconvenience is only temporary?) If the only
hazard is ingestion, you usually can avoid it through careful
This advice to artists is similar to the advice physicians
routinely give their pregnant patients about medications: avoid
using medications during pregnancy unless they are absolutely
necessary. The reason is that most medications have not been
studied properly, so no one knows if they are safe or at what
levels they might be safe. (This does not mean that all
medications can cause birth defects or other reproductive
effects. It simply means that you should be better safe than
Men who are planning a family should also avoid mutagens and
chemicals affecting fertility well in advance of the planned
pregnancy. If you have been exposed, a medical evaluation is
Tips For the Workplace
If you must continue to work with hazardous materials while
preparing for a family or during a pregnancy, here are some
additional tips to help you work more safely. They are good to
follow any time, not just before and during pregnancy and while
breast feeding. And they are especially important if you are
considering having children in the future.
* If you work at home, keep your work area separate from your
living area. If you are not an artist but live with one,
remember that you still risk potential exposure. Artists who
work at home additionally risk twenty-four-hour-a-day exposure to
toxins, unless proper precautions are taken.
* If you do not know what is in a substance you use, try to
find out. The label sometimes will list the ingredients and
suggest safety precautions. But sometimes there is not enough
information to help. You should contact the manufacturer or
supplier and request a Material Safety Data Sheet. Or you can
contact the Center for Safety in the Arts for more information.
* Substitute safer materials for more toxic ones. For
example, use acrylic paints or watercolors instead of oil paint.
This eliminates the need to use turpentine and paint thinner.
Make simple black and white photographs, and do not do toning,
intensifying or color photographic processing. In general,
working with water-based materials is safer than working with
solvent -based materials or powders.
* Inspect your work area for adequate ventilation, proper
storage of materials, etc. The checklist below will help you.
* Wear work clothes or coveralls to protect you when you work.
Wear gloves, goggles, and respirators if necessary.
* Wash work clothes separately from the family's clothes.
* Do not eat or drink in a work area.
* Do not drink alcoholic beverages if you are pregnant.
Besides being a known teratogen, ethyl alcohol can produce more
* Do not smoke. Besides the known teratogenic effects of
carbon monoxide, smoking can increase the amount of toxins that
enter the lungs.
* If employed as an artist or craftsperson by someone else
during a pregnancy, consider asking you employer to transfer you
to a non-hazardous work area. Such a transfer should not entail
a loss of benefits during your pregnancy.
Here are some common things to consider when inspecting your
work area. A complete list is available form the Center for
Safety in the Arts.
* General ventilation (a window exhaust fan) for small amounts
of vapors and gases.
* Additional local exhaust ventilation for certain processes,
such as a canopy hood for kilns, a spray booth for spraying,
* Removal of carpets and other fabrics which can collect dust
from wall, floors, and ceilings.
* Properly labeled containers.
* Powdered materials stored in airtight jars.
* Liquids stored in tightly capped containers.
* Large containers on floor or low shelves to prevent falls,
* Dangerous materials stored away from work and living areas.
* Flammable and combustible materials properly stored.
* Fire extinguisher in work area.
* Machines properly guarded.
* Adequately stocked first aid kit in work area.
* Emergency telephone numbers posted by a nearby telephone.
Reproductive Hazards of Industrial Chemicals. Susan M.
Barlow, & Frank M. Sullivan, Academic Press: New York (1973).
Chemical Hazards to Human Reproduction. Council on
Environmental Quality, prepared by Clement Associates, Inc.,
Artist Beware: The Hazards and Precautions in Working with Art
& Craft Materials. Michael McCann, Watson-Guptill Publications:
New York (1979).
Reproductive Toxicology and Occupational Exposure, by
Jacqueline Messite and Marcus Bond in Developments in
Occupational Medicine, Ed. Carl Zenz, Yearbook Publishers:
Catalog of Teratogenic Agents. Thomas H. Shepard, The John
Hopkins University Press: Baltimore & London (1980).
Women's Work, Women's Health Myth and Realities. Jeanne M.
Stellman, Pantheon Books: New York (1977).
Environment and Birth Defects. James G. Wilson, Academic
Press: New York (1973).
Aided by Reproductive Hazards in the Workplace Grant No. 15-43
from the March of Dimes Birth Defect Foundation, and by a grant
from the C.S. Fund.
Types of Reproductive Effects From Exposure to Toxic
Male Before Conception
* loss of sex drive
* lowered fertility (production of damaged sperm or
decreased ability to produce sperm)
* genetic damage to sperm cells (mutations)
* testicular changes/damage
* cancer of reproductive organs
Female Before Conception
* loss of sex drive
* lowered fertility (production of damaged eggs or
decreased ability to ovulate)
* genetic damage to eggs (mutations)
* menstrual changes/disorders
* cancer of reproductive organs
* increased vulnerability of mother
* complications from miscarriages, spontaneous
* exposure to teratogens: developmental damage
resulting in fetal death, birth defects, growth
retardation, premature birth, low birth weight, etc.
* exposure to toxic chemicals - miscarriages, organ
damage, spontaneous abortions, etc. ; damage, spontaneous abortions, etc.
Fetus or Newborn
* conception prevented or made more difficult
* mutations from damaged egg or sperm
* toxic effects on newborn from chemicals transmitted
in breast milk
* toxic effects on infant from chemicals contaminating
living area or parents' clothes, hair, etc.
* toxic effects on child from child being exposed to
chemicals in art studio
* exposure to some carcinogens - possible cancer during
childhood or later
Table 2. Adverse Reproductive Effects of Chemical and Physical
Agents (Part A)
Chemical Name Affects Affects Fetal Affects
Male Female Death Newborn
Antimony H/A H/A H/A H/A
Arsenic - H/A A A
Cadmium H/A A A H/A
Chromium A - - A
Cobalt A - - A
Copper A A - A
Gold Salts - - - A
Lead H/A H/A H/A H/A
Lithium - - - H/A
Manganese H/A H/A A A
Mercury H/A H/A A H/A
Nickel A - - A
Selenium H/A H/A H/A H/A
Zinc A - - A
Acetone - - A A
Benzene H/A H/A - H/A
Benzyl Alcohol - - - H/A
Ethyl Alcohol H/A H/A H/A H/A
Ethylene - H/A A A
Glycol Ethers H?5/A H?5/A A A
Isopropyl - - - A
Methyl Alcohol - - A A
Methyl - - - H5
Methylene - - - A
Methyl ethyl - - - H6
Perchloro- - A - H5/A
Refined - H - -
Toluene - H/A H/A H/A
Turpentine - - - A
Xylene - H A H/A
Organic - H/A H/A H/A
Bromides - - - H
Carbon H/A H/A H/A H/A
Cyanides - A A A
Fluorine - - - H/A
Formaldehyde - H - A
Glycidyl A - - A
Hydrogen - A - A
Nitrogen - A A A
Pentachloro- A A H/A H/A
Phthalate A - A A
Styrene A H/A - -
Textile dyes - - - A
Heat H/A H/A - H/A
Ionizing H/A H/A - H/A
Noise H/A H/A - H/A
Includes reduced fertility, cancer of reproductive organs,
abnormal or reproduced sperm, testicular damage, etc.
2. Includes reduced fertility, cancer of reproductive organs,
menstrual changes & disorders, sterility, etc.
3. Includes miscarriage, stillbirth, and spontaneous abortion.
4. Includes low birth weight, birth defects, premature birth,
growth retardation, etc.
5. Based on inconclusive data that is suggestive but incomplete.
6. Studies indicate its appearance in breast milk after exposure
of the mother.
H positive human studies
A positive animal studies
N negative test results
- no studies or insufficient data
Table 2. Adverse Reproductive Effects of Chemical and Physical
Agents (Part B)
CHEMICAL NAME ART PROCESS/MATERIAL
Antimony ceramics & enameling, metal working, pewter