Reproductive Hazards in the
Arts and Crafts

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 years.

  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.


Risks to the Mother During Pregnancy

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.


How Can Reproductive Damage Be Prevented?

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 personal hygiene.

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 sorry.) 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 suggested.

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 severe effects.

* 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.


Work Area Checklist

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, etc.

* 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, spills.

* 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., January (1981). 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: Chicago (1980). 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.


Table 1.

Types of Reproductive Effects From Exposure to Toxic Chemicals

Male Before Conception * loss of sex drive * impotence * lowered fertility (production of damaged sperm or decreased ability to produce sperm) * sterility * 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) * sterility * genetic damage to eggs (mutations) * menstrual changes/disorders * cancer of reproductive organs

During Pregnancy

* increased vulnerability of mother * complications from miscarriages, spontaneous abortions, etc. * 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

Before Conception * conception prevented or made more difficult * mutations from damaged egg or sperm

After Birth * 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         -         -

   Petroleum Solvents

Toluene        -         H/A       H/A       H/A

Turpentine     -         -         -         A

Xylene         -         H         A         H/A

Organic        -         H/A       H/A       H/A

   Solvents Mixture



Bromides       -         -         -         H

Carbon         H/A       H/A       H/A       H/A


Cyanides       -         A         A         A

Fluorine       -         -         -         H/A

   & compounds

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

   & Vibration


Notes: 1.

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)



Antimony       ceramics & enameling, metal working, pewter

Arsenic        glassblowing, patinas, wood preservative

Cadmium        pigments, silver soldering, ceramics & enameling

Chromium       pigments, ceramics & enameling, photochemicals

Cobalt         pigments, ceramics & enameling

Copper         metalworking, ceramics & enameling

Gold Salts     photochemicals & electroplating

Lead           pigments, soft solders, ceramics & enameling,

               stained glass, lead casting

Lithium        ceramics & enameling

Manganese      pigments, metalworking, ceramics & enameling

Mercury        pigments, photochemicals, neon sculpture

Nickel         electroplating, metalworking, ceramics & enameling

Selenium       pigments, photochemicals

Zinc           pigments, metalworking, solder flux, ceramics,



Acetone        strippers, lacquers, thinners, plastics solvent

Benzene        old paint strippers & rubber cements, gasoline

Benzyl Alcohol photochemicals solvent

Ethyl Alcohol  shellac, denatured alcohol

Ethylene       plastics solvent


Glycol Ethers  photochemicals solvent, photo-resists, lacquers

               aerosol sprays

Isopropyl      rubbing alcohol


Methyl Alcohol shellac, french dyes, duplicating fluid, paint


Methyl         aerosol sprays, etching grounds, film

   Chloroform       cleaners

Methylene      paint strippers, aerosol sprays, plastics

   Chloride         cement

Methyl ethyl   lacquers, thinners, plastics solvent


Perchloro-     degreasing, printmaking


Refined        paint thinners, lacquer, silk screen inks,

   Petroleum        rubber cement, etc.


Toluene        lacquer thinners, silk screen inks, aerosol sprays

Turpentine     varnishes, painting

Xylene         lacquer thinners, printmaking, aerosol sprays

Organic Solvents

   Mixture     wide variety of art materials


Bromides       photochemicals

Carbon         gas-fired kilns & furnaces, carbon arcs


Cyanides       electroplating, photochemicals, plastics


Fluorine       glass etching, silver solder flux &

   & compounds welding, ceramics & enameling

Formaldehyde   preservative, photochemicals, certain glues

               -resins, plywood, particle board

Glycidyl       epoxy resins & glues


Hydrogen       decomposition of sulfide toners & sulfide

   Sulfide          metal colorants

Nitrogen       etching, arc welding, carbon arcs


Pentachloro-   wood preservative


Phthalate      plastics preserver, plastic resin hardener


Styrene        polyester resin

Textile dyes   fabric dying

PHYSICAL AGENTS                    

Heat           kilns & furnaces

Ionizing       ceramic & pottery glazes & enamels, photochemicals


Noise          wood & metalworking machinery, abrasive blasting,

   & Vibration      pneumatic tools


Copyright Center for Safety in the Arts 1983.

This article was originally printed for Art Hazard News, © copyright Center for Safety in the Arts 1983. It appears on nontoxicprint courtesy of the Health in the Arts Program, University of Illinois at Chicago, who have curated a collection of these articles from their archive which are still relevant to artists today.