Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Paint Toxicity

If you're a brush licker, you need to read this post. It could save your health!
There's a lot of discussions out there about whether paints are toxic or not. It's easy to read the side of a bottle of paint and see "non-toxic" and take that at face value. However that labeling may only be applicable to a specific type of exposure based on "expected usage" of the product. For those of us that lick our brushes though, that isn't necessarily part of the expected usage, so the question of toxicity is still on the table. I started off with a curiosity to learn a little more about paints and potential toxicity and, like Alice, found myself quickly falling down the rabbit hole. This post is a summary of what I learned that's relevant to those of us in the miniatures painting community. As a quick note, this post is rather lengthy so I've tried to organize it with headings to help you skip to sections you are most interested in.

First, I am not a toxicologist, government regulator, lawyer, chemist, manufacturer, or any other profession even remotely related to the art industry. I should not be considered an expert and the information presented here is to the best of my understanding. I've done the best I can to validate all the information presented, but I've provided numerous reference URLs for you learn more.
Second, I am not being compensated in any way by any manufacturer for this post. Everything presented here was as a result of my own rigorous investigation and although I dearly love my painting hobby, learning the facts was my chief motivation here.
Third, I am only covering traditional acrylic paints. That is pigment and acrylic polymer emulsion medium. I am not covering other acrylic additives or oil paints. I am also not covering other materials of the hobby such as putties, resins, plastics, metals or spray sealants (or anything else for that matter). If there's enough interest in other materials I will happily do future research and posts on those.

Grades of Acrylic Paints:
For the purposes of my investigation, I broke up acrylic paints into 3 groups:
  • Hobby grade - These are paints use for the miniatures painting hobby and make up 99% of my paint supplies. As examples on my desk, I have P3, RMS, RPP, GW, VMC, VGC, VPA, VMA, and Secret Weapon (see abbreviations in sidebar).
  • Craft grade - These are paints bought in craft stores that come in larger bottles. They are used for a wide variety of projects. I've excluded them from my investigation for a number of reasons. The main reasons are there are a huge array of manufacturers out there and I own almost none of them due to the particle size of the pigments. I will note that in general, I found craft grade paints tend to be even safer (less toxic) than hobby grade paints. On my desk I have Delta Ceramcoat, Folk Art, Craft Smart, DecoArt, and Apple Barrel.
  • Artist grade - This refers to acrylic paints intended for traditional canvas artists. They are purchased in art stores, come in tubes, and tend to be far thicker than traditional miniatures paints. Although I own a few random tubes of artist grade paint (from Winsor & Newton, Golden Acrylic, and Liquitex) I almost never use them. In general, most artist grade paints are non toxic, however there are many notable exceptions and if you are going to use them, make sure to read the labels carefully. On my desk I have W&N Finity, W&N Artisian, Liquitex Professional, and Golden Liquid Acrylics.
Regardless of the grade of paints, they all fall under the same regulatory bodies and the information provided here is applicable to all of them.
Also note that I'm not going to specifically cover inks, washes, dry pigments, metallics, glazes, additives, or other related products. I've added some notes on them at the very end in the glossary. Again though, the guidelines of how to read the labels will apply to them as well.

A Brief History of Acrylic Paints:
Acrylic paints are a relatively recent invention (about 60 years old). Acrylic paints are, very simplistically, plastic in water with pigments added. The plastic is an acrylic polymer emulsion and when applied to a surface, the water evaporates depositing the acrylic polymer. That polymer then hardens and is unable to be re-hydrated. It is these qualities that make them very well suited for the miniatures painting hobby.
The first acrylic paints were made using similar pigments as traditional artist oil-based paints. Many of these pigments were made using heavy metals (more on that below) because of their colorfastness. Today, most pigment are made from various organic or synthetic compounds. Some pigments are even made from normal dirt!

Quick Chemistry and Health Lesson:
Heavy metals (such as As, Cd, Co, Cr, Hg, Pb, Sb, Se) are toxic! If absorbed into the bloodstream (through skin, ingestion, or inhalation) they can cause very serious health problems. Cadmium (Cd) for example can cause liver and kidney failure and cause cancer. So if you're thinking that the small amounts of paint that we're working with can't be dangerous, think again!

A quick note on metallic paints: The "metal" part of metallic paints is actually tiny particles of mica. Mica itself is not particularly toxic, but there are a number of studies out there in the cosmetics field that will indicate dangers about mica. To the best of my research, this is only relevant for the particles being inhaled, and there is no specific toxicity dangers to the mica particles being ingested. In fact I discovered that some toothpastes actually include powdered mica as a whitening agent.

Regulating Bodies
There are three primary regulating bodies in regard to artist material safety.
  • The first, and in my opinion most important, is the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). Unfortunately this body oversees a huge variety of things. The relevant standard to know about is D-4236. This is the standard for artist materials and you'll see this referenced on pretty much all of the paints. More on this later.
  • The second is the Art & Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) which is a US-based non-profit organization that certifies a variety of artistic materials. Essentially, as far as I can tell, their standards are an implementation of ASTM D-4236, but with simplified labeling. The upside is that the ACMI labeling makes it much quicker to assess the safety of a product. The downside is that relatively few products seem to actually use this standard. Of my own collection of paints, less than a third of them had it, and specifically none of what I classify as hobby grade paints had it.
  • The third is the European Commission which is responsible for the EC symbol you'll see on many paints. There's a lot of details around this on their website. It's essentially meant to be the same as the ASTM D-4236 standard. Obviously I didn't go into the detail to determine how similar those standards are.

Standards and Labeling (or... This is the important part!)
So right about now you might be thinking Ok great, that's all fascinating, but I still don't know if my paints are safe! So let's go over what to look for on the labels.
I'm going to start with this P3 Iosan Green. If you look at the label you'll see the text "Conforms to ASTM D4236". What this means is that the product is labeled according to the D-4236 standard for labeling artist materials. This part does not mean it is entirely non-toxic. It only means that the labeling will include any relevant warnings. If you keep reading you'll see "Nontoxic", "Do not ingest", and "In case of eye contact...". So how do you make sense of all that given it seems a little conflicting? Well the "Nontoxic" part is pretty straightforward, the "Do not ingest" is an indication of intended use, and the directive about contact with eyes is exactly what it is. At first review it may seem like this label is saying that licking your brushes is going to be "bad" in some unspecified way. But, before you panic, let's take a look at another example.

This bottle of Golden Fluid Acrylics is a much more interesting study. Notice how it has the "ASTM D4236" seal on the back. However, in the fine print you'll also see "Warning: This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer." That's right boys and girls, this paint is not safe to lick. This is why I said the D-4236 standard was not a seal of non-toxicity in itself. If you go to the Golden Paints website for more detail, you'll discover that this particular paint contains "crystalline silica" and "iron oxide" (and yes, it's also on the front label of the bottle). On the data sheet they have many other heavy metals listed as used in other paints. This bottle is a good example of why it's important to check the labels carefully. If you just looked for the "Conforms to ASTM D-4236" labeling, and didn't read the rest, you could be on your way to the hospital. Ok, enough scare tactics. Let's move on...

Now here we have a RMS bottle with no ASTM labeling on it. You will however notice that it has the "CE" symbol, and the words "non-toxic". Although I am less versed in the details of the CE labeling, if you see these together you can feel fairly safe that the paint is non-toxic.

This is just a quick overview, but you should have learned the importance of reading the labels carefully. Also I have admittedly had a bit more of a US-centric focus in terms of standards, so for those readers in other geographic regions I do apologize. I only had access to paints available in US stores so hopefully your labelings will be similar. Odds are that one or both of the ASTM or CE labeling schemes will appear on your paints. There are other labels (swirling arrows and big "e" to name a couple) which I have not researched here. Also remember that the ACMI labeling functions as a roll-up for approved non-toxic product under the D-4236 standard, so if you see the ACMI AP label, it's safe. For now though, let's cut to the chase on some specific manufacturer's lines...

Guidance for Specific Manufacturer's Lines:
Once again, please take care in noting that this is only my guidance and I am not a qualified toxicologist, doctor, or any other professional of any kind to rely on. I'm only sharing the guidance I am giving myself about paints I commonly use. This is a list of paints immediately found on my desk that I use on a regular basis. If I've noted it as "safe", that means the entire line seems safe for normal painting activity, including brush licking.
  • Reaper Miniatures: Safe! Reaper actually responded to me 2 days after I emailed them. They sent me an entire data sheet of product safety information about their entire line of paints. Unfortunately the sheet is not directly available on their website. If you are interested, you can email them. Please note that the data sheet only covered the Reaper Master Series paints though. The Reaper Pro Paints were replaced by the RMS line. I think in order to be on the safe side, the RPPs are going into my "archives".
  • Games Workshop: Safe! Admittedly I'm relying on the labeling alone here. I attempted to contact GW by email but never heard back from them after 2 weeks.
  • Privateer Press: Safe! Same boat as GW actually (no email response for 2 weeks), but with the caveat that I've seen forum posts by Matt DiPietro and Mike McVey stating the paints are non-toxic and these guys are consummate brush lickers when they use the 2BB technique. Heck, Mike helped formulate the P3 line of paints, so he ought to know what's in them.
  • Secret Weapon Miniatures: Safe! Ok, this needs a significant caveat here. At present the Secret Weapon line is not labeled for safety. Also they have dry pigments and washes only. However Justin McCoy from Secret Weapon went above and beyond in helping me out on this research project. Turns out he is in the process of getting the ACMI certification for the entire line of pigments, washes and scenics. Many thanks to him for the numerous emails we traded!
  • Acrylicos Vallejo: Do not ingest! Vallejo was the one manufacturer that I didn't attempt to contact via email. They have a very comprehensive website in terms of safety standards and ratings and a good FAQ on health questions. Now when I say "mostly safe", it's important to note that most of their paints are fine, but some are of questionable nature. The individual labeling on their dropper bottles is not always clear either. I never found a single bottle in my collection that says "non-toxic" on it. My unfounded suspicion is that there are trace amounts of something bad. I'd love to call it safe, but I think going forward I'm going to avoid any 2BB work with them.

Some Final Thoughts or What I'm Going To Do Differently:
Hopefully you've found something useful in here, and hopefully nothing inaccurate. If you know of any inaccuracies, please post a comment! Completely unlike my normal approach to this blog, I spent a lot of time working on this post. Seriously, probably 30 to 40 hours of reading, emailing, searching, reading more, going to various stores looking for other paints, trolling through forum posts, cross-checking facts where possible, reading even more, and of course writing this post. I've done my best to present accurate information, but I'm only human. In any case, here's my personal take-aways:
  • Red tape on bottles - Any paints that I plan to keep in normal circulation will get a stripe of red tape to remind me of any potential toxicity concerns.
  • Cleaning out my rinse jars more often - This is something I didn't explicitly cover above. Although generally the paint ingredients are inactive, leaving a jar of water out that's gotten all kinds of stuff in it has the potential to turn bad. I had this happen to me once when I left a jar of very dirty rinse water sit for over a month. When I opened it, there was a puff of compressed air released and a noxious odor. As a result of this study and seeing more than a couple posts about rinse water going bad, I'm going to make an effort to dump out my rinse water between each painting session. Btw, the dish soap I put in my rinse to condition my brushes... I check and it's safe.
  • Added caution about inhalation potential - By far the biggest danger presented is inhalation of materials. Although most hobby grade dry pigments and airbrush paints are fairly safe, getting materials into your lungs is a recipe for problems. On of my goals for this year is to use the airbrush and a couple of the VMA paints I have are not entirely clear on their safety. I think I'll make sure to use caution with those and not spray them up my nose.
  • Brush licking is still game on - My wife asked me whether licking my brush was a habit or a conscious practice. Although 2BB work is definitely a conscious act, I had to admit that licking my brush after I rinse it is just a habit now. Fortunately it's a pretty safe one. I'm going to continue to lick my brush, 2BB, and even on occasion lick the back of my hand and use it as a wet palette.

The following are the most significant of the references I used (that weren't already linked above). Obviously there is a lot of information out there on the internet and some of it is of questionable accuracy. It took some digging to figure out what sites had useful and factual material.
  • Wikipedia - Yeah, it's Wikipedia, but much of the information on it I was able to corroborate from other sources, and Wikipedia had lots of information all in one convenient place.
  • ACMI Safety - Although I listed it above, this page in particular is of great use.
  • eHow - Actually just this specific eHow page with a very concise summary of the ASTM D-4236 standard.
  • Earth Pigments - I don't actually use their products at this time, but they have wonderful fact sheets on their site about product and material safety.

Whew! If you've made it this far and you're still reading, great job! I've included a glossary of terms at the end here, more for my own benefit as a course of writing this post. Thanks for your time reading this!
  • Additives - Medium modifiers that change the properties of the paint in terms of drying time, viscosity, or cohesion.
  • Binder - A medium used to bind the pigment to the surface. For acrylic paints, this is the Acrylic Polymer.
  • Cohesion - A measure of a liquid's tendency to cling to itself. Often referred to as surface tension in terms of the application of paint. Flow improvers are used to reduce paint cohesion and allow it to flow from the brush easier.
  • Colorfastness - The ability for a pigment to retain its original hue without fading over time.
  • Dry pigments - Raw pigment material, separate from any sort of liquid medium.
  • Emulsion - A mixture of two liquids that are normally not mixable.
  • Glazes - Generally a formulation designed to extend working time of a paint and cause it to form a thin coating.
  • Inks - Generally formulated with a higher concentration of pigment and a thinner medium. Ink formulations can vary greatly between manufacturers and particularly between paint grades.
  • Medium - Refers to the vehicle of the pigment, typically a water-based liquid of some kind for acrylic paints.
  • Metallics - Paints with a metallic medium (generally flakes of mica) suspended in it. Generally the higher the ratio of mica to pigment, the shinier the paint. Normal "steel" metallics are made using black pigment.
  • Particle Size - Refers to the size of the pigment particles. Generally the smaller the particle, the smoother the look.
  • Pigment - Refers to the color agent specifically.
  • Retarders - An additive that extends the drying time of the paint to allow for more working time. Also referred to as an extender.
  • Viscosity - A measure of a liquid's "thickness" or resistance to being moved.
  • Washes - Generally a formulation intended to spread a thin coat of pigment over an area, but with enough flow to cause the wash to recede into crevasses.


Anonymous said...

If you haven't read this Hand Cannon article, you should:


Especially the part titled "Most importantly, Don’t lick your brush!" The author of the article personally suffered some pretty unpleasant effects from licking his paint brush for a long period of time. If nothing else, I can't possibly imagine that ingesting acrylic medium (plastic) is good for you over the long term.

John Spencer said...

I'm surprised GW didn't get back to you. They have MSDS for their paints, and they should be easy for the customer service guy to get to to send to you (at least that's the way I left it). IIRC, there were no warnings at all for the non-metallic paints, but there may be one for the metallic paints.

Scott said...

@twentymiles: Thanks for posting that link. I have read that article, and am a great admirer of Ghoul's work. That said, he only provided a small amount of information in that post. I found plenty of information about the toxicities of some paints, but not all paints are created equal. I'm not discounting Ghoul's experience at all. Merely trying to educate people so they can make their own choices, just as I have made choices about what I consider to be safe for myself. Different people with different levels of fortitude need to choose what they think is safe for them. I would also guess I paint less than 10% as much as Ghoul does, so volume can certainly play a factor.

Yet Another Wargaming Blogger said...

Actually, every GW store has a notebook of all the MSDS that cover the full range of their products. Actually, it's required by law. Most HCO's though have no idea about it and it's usually somewhere "in the back."
Since the MSDS is required by law, it might not hurt to remind them that they are required to provide you with an MSDS on request by law.

Mike Howell said...

Really interesting stuff. I am a habitual brush licker, and I've also developed liver issues in the past few years. Although those are more likely related to overall health and weight, I am more conscious of what sort of toxins might be in my systems (and the organs that must filter them out.)

Thanks for this!

Scott said...

@MikeHowell: I myself had a bit of a kidney scare myself about a year ago. At the time they ran a whole slew of blood tests on me. Turned out to be nothing really, and in fact after losing 50lbs all my health issues went away. Just goes to show that it's important to keep the big picture in mind in terms of health choices (including brush licking). Plus each person is different and will be affected differently. Heck, I can't wear electronic watches because something about me causes them to malfunction after a few weeks/months!

@YAWB: Thanks for that info! I wasn't aware of that. I hope everyone that reads this feels empowered to ask questions and make their own decisions rather than just blindly trust that things are safe (even if they are safe).

Maxus said...

Possible reason why GW didn't get back to you (besides that its GW). Rumor is their paint line is changing.


David Diamondstone said...

Some vallejo paints definitely contain Cadmium:

"In our colors for Models and Miniatures, Cadmium Calcinated Zinc Sulphide and Cadmium Sulphoselenide are present in some of the basic colors and in even lesser percentage in mixtures of the 300 plus shades. All are certified as ASTM D4236- No Health Labelling Required, and projected is in addition the EN71-3 certification, as well as a new label design which will make it feasible to list the most important pigments contained in the colors."

Brant said...

Hey guys, Ghool here.

I thought I would clarify some conclusions I came to about brush-licking, since my article is linked in the comments here.

Brush-licking is safe. For the most part, as long as you take the proper precautions; change your rinse water, and have a separate cup just for rinsing your second brush.

I have since changed my mind about the safety of licking your brush, as most of the paints we use nowadays are pretty safe, and our models no longer contain lead.

The toxicity I suffered from happened over 15 years ago, and was the result of heavy metals (namely lead) in my painting water. I was also using Ral Partha paints at the time, which are not safe to ingest in any way. I would leave my rinse water for days on end, and use the same water for washing my models, and thus large amounts of lead, and other heavy metals used in the pigments ended up in there, and eventually, my body.

I have been licking my brush for about a year now, after some research, and conversations pertaining to the practice. Just make sure you're using a 'safe' line of paints (I use almost exclusively P3's) before you go licking your brush. Clean your blending brush often to reduce the amount of paint you ingest in a separate cup of water just for that. You can also spit into your palette to prevent putting your brush into your mouth, if you have reservations still.

This article is a great resource, and I'll make sure I link it to Hand Cannon when I post my next video.

Awareness, and mindfulness when you paint is all that's needed to keep yourself safe.

Scott said...

Thanks for checking in Ghoul! I think I speak for the whole painting community when I say how much I appreciate you taking the time to clarify your experience and point of view.

Silk Holi Color said...

Can I put CE mark on my colors if my colors have passed EN 71-3 test from SGS labs ?

Paintie person said...

What a lot of great research! I am desperately looking for a paint that's acrylic based (floats on water) but that is skin friendly. I wondered if you could offer any pointers. Heavy metal and formaldehyde free, but can't find this level of info detailed anywhere behave you come across anything like this?