Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Banning cadmium in artist paints

Inside the sludge bucket
decanted solvent ready for reuse

Reading Katherine Tyrrell's excellent blog "Making a Mark" on Monday, I discovered that there;s a proposal in front of the EU to ban the use of cadmiums in artists' paints in Europe.  While I use cadmiums and love them for their intensity and opacity, I think this may be a good thing.  In my experience teaching classes and workshops to all levels of painters from beginners to professionals, I've found a scary lack of understanding about the toxicity of the pigments that they're using.  From holding brushes in their mouths, to washing paint down the drain, painters are doing crazy and dangerous things every day in the privacy of their studios.  It's not intentional and most of them are appalled to discover that they're polluters; the information just isn't out there.

Cadmium, cobalt, titanium, and many other pigments are toxic - regardless of whether they're bound in oil or acrylic bases (or watercolour, for that matter) - and have to be considered hazardous waste. That means that artists should dispose of them with as much scrupulousness as we expect big companies to use when they get rid of manufacturing waste.  The drain and household garbage aren't options.

So what's an honest painter to do?  Start by getting a bucket with a lid like the one in the photo at the top. That old honey container is my sludge bucket.  Whenever I clean out my solvent container, I dump the lot into that bucket and scrape in all of the pigment sludge that has accumulated over a few days' of painting.  It's a grey mess when it goes in, but overnight it settles out and the solvent rises to the top, clean and perfectly reusable.  The pigments settle into a layer at the bottom.

It took me 3 years to fill the last bucket with pigment sludge, and then I took it to the hazardous waste disposal section of the local landfill.  In my city, some fire stations also accept chemical waste.  I expect that every city's government website will list facilities for chemical drop off and disposal.

We should all be doing this, but I think paint manufacturers need to step up and educate consumers as well. Paint displays should outline safe handling and disposal of their products. The tiny MSDS warnings on tubes of paint just don't cut it.

Can educating artists help to save cadmiums in Europe?  I don't know, but it will certainly save health and waterways, and that matters more than great colour.


Bobbi Dunlop said...

Excellent post, Ingrid! Every artist needs to adopt safe and healthy habits both for themselves and our environment! I hope that the cadmiums can be saved ... love them!

Ingrid Christensen said...

Thanks for reading, Bobbi. It's a huge issue once you wade into it. Hopefully, artists will shape up!

KrisG said...

I think too many people are getting hung up on "environmental" issues. Other blogs have already shown that the current alternative pigments to the cadmiums are not as good in terms of opacity.
I have always saved my oil sludge and the last full jar went to the hazards tip some four years ago. I don't need to be a professional painter to know how to dispose of ought to be common-sense, but the world doesn't seem to have much of that these days.

So you ban cadmiums, then it'll be some other pigment that gets the chop, till eventually it won't be worth painting anything at all. Pigments are chemicals, do we wish to paint with tomato sauce or radish-juice?
The Swedish government is at the bottom of this fiasco, so if there is a ban you can blame them.

Ingrid Christensen said...

I agree: nothing compares to cads for opacity, but you're in the extreme minority as a painter who saves pigment sludge. I know a lot of painters - amateur and professional - and I have yet to find any who save the sludge for safe disposal.

There needs to be a move to educate the buyers of cad paints about how to dispose of them as hazardous waste, and that's the responsibility of the manufacturers, the retailers, and the apparently few artists who understand it.