Is Your Pastel Studio Safe?

Q. I’m concerned about the safety of using pastels in my home studio, but I haven’t been able to find much information specifically on this medium. What are the best ways to keep an indoor pastel studio safe?
Sara Loughridge
South Bristol, ME

A. Pastel safety is a complicated issue, partly because it’s a continually evolving one. Artists have been using pastels—generally without much concern—for about 250 years now, but recently we’ve begun to learn about the effects of breathing the dust created by pastel sticks, and it turns out there’s good reason for concern. In fact, the health risks are strong enough that every pastel artist should be made aware of them, and I’d advise that regularly working in a pastel studio without some level of safety precaution is simply too big a risk for you to take. I’ll discuss the precautions shortly, but first I’ll explain some of the dangers.

Essentially, there are two fundamental characteristics of the pastel medium that make it dangerous to inhale: the small particle size of the dust and the toxicity of the pigments. Pastel dust consists of extremely fine particles of both pigments and binders. When the dust is inhaled, some particles will deposit in the upper respiratory system, where they’re raised on the lungs’ mucous and swallowed along with other dust. But more harmfully, a significant portion of the pastel dust particles, especially those from pigments, are small enough to get deep into the lungs’ air sacs (alveoli), where they may remain indefinitely.

The pigments used in art materials fall into two groups: inorganic and organic. Inorganic pigments contain metals that are often toxic, such as chrome, cobalt, manganese, nickel and cadmium. Most organic pigments, which are complex hydrocarbons, haven’t been studied for their long-term hazards, but many of them—such as the anthra-quinones (alizarin crimson, for example) or benzidines (diarylide yellow, for example)—are members of chemical classes suspected to cause cancer. Unfortunately, finding out whether the pigments you’re using are toxic is difficult because many manufacturers don’t identify them precisely, and current labeling laws allow untested chemicals in art materials to be labeled “nontoxic.”

Practically speaking, you can reduce your exposure to the pastel dust in your studio, but you can’t adequately control it in the home setting. The particles are essentially invisible, they’re carried throughout the house on clothing and shoes, they go right through common vacuum cleaner filters, and they become airborne on even the smallest air current. If, as your questions implies, the studio is indoors, then you and your family will inevitably be exposed to some level of potentially toxic pastel dust. The only exception to this condition would be if you work with only black, white and a few other low-toxicity colors such as those with iron-based pigments or ultramarine pigments.

Reducing the health risk in your studio basically consists of minimizing the amount of pastel dust floating in the air and clinging to the objects and surfaces in the room. To do this, keep your studio clean and well-ventilated. Make sure it has floors and surfaces that are sealed and easily wet-cleaned, and if you prefer vacuuming, you should get a high-efficiency, particulate air (HEPA) vacuum to capture fine pastel dust. While you’re working, wear gloves, a smock, hair covering and work shoes, and don’t wear them outside your studio. In addition, launder the clothing separately from your family’s other clothes. Wash up thoroughly after your work sessions, and don’t eat, drink, apply cosmetics or do other tasks of hygiene in the studio. Also, small children should be kept out of a studio in which professional art materials are used.

Respirators and breathing masks are often recommended for pastelists, but they can provide a false sense of security and even be harmful in some cases. The physical stress caused by breathing through a respirator may be dangerous for people with certain heart and lung diseases, or for women who are pregnant. Plus, respirators are made to fit the average face, and many people can’t find one that sufficiently conforms to their own face. If the device doesn’t fit, it doesn’t work. To wear a mask or respirator, consult your doctor about the breathing stress, then get yourself professionally fit, tested and trained in the use and limitations of the gear.

If you really want to make your studio as safe as possible, the first thing I’d recommend is to move your studio outside the home. Second, your studio would be safest with a specially made ventilation system that captures dust right at the easel. This can be expensive, though, and it requires an engineer to configure a system for your studio and the way you work. (I can be contacted at 212/777-0062 for a referral, from which I don’t benefit financially.)

Finally, pastelists working at home might consider using oil pastels. The look and feel of this medium is somewhat different from dry pastels, but oil pastels don’t create dust. They may be the biggest improvement in safety you can make with the smallest sacrifice.

While these measures may sound a bit excessive, any steps you take to reduce your exposure to toxic particles will be worth the effort. You may not notice the benefits right away, but it’s the long run that counts.

Sheri Ramsey, a native of Omaha, Nebraska, studied art at Indiana University and has operated the Ramsey Art Studio in Springfield, Illinois, since 1974. She’s also taught high school art, as well as oil and pastel painting at the Springfield Art Association since 1975. Her art hangs in public collections throughout the United States and in private collections all over the world. She’s also had several solo and group exhibitions, and is a member of the Pastel Society of America.

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