I received a message the other day from fellow artist Anneke , asking me about safety issues with oil painting when pregnant (congratulations Anneke!). Now I think you all know I am no medical doctor, nor a scientist who knows all about toxic chemicals. So please just take my advice for what it is; just advice from a fellow painter and mum of two kids. I have looked into this stuff quite a lot though because, like Anneke, I was concerned about the safety of my (unborn) baby and pet and later on about the safety of my kids, crawling around my painting corner (didn’t have a studio yet in those days).
I found that some artists take safety extremely seriously, while others are way too relaxed about it. I believe that a common sense approach is really best.
So when you are pregnant can you continue using oil paints?
Know Your Materials
First of all you need to get to know your materials. How toxic are Titanium, Burnt Umber and Cadmium really? How could any toxicity enter your body? How big is the chance of that happening? And what about solvents?
Titanium White, for example, is not toxic and safe to use; in fact the same pigment is used in food colouring. Cadmium, however, is very toxic if eaten or inhaled, but cannot enter your blood stream through the skin. Although Cadmium is a toxic pigment you will probably not be using it as a powdery pigment, and so there is no risk of inhaling the dust.
On my Winsor & Newton (UK made) Cadmium paint tubes there are no safety warnings, but on my Vasari (US made) there are safety warnings. It states the frightening sounding warning that it can harm the unborn foetus. Of course these warnings generally refer to eating/ingesting it (why doesn’t it state that as well), something us artists do not tend to do.
Other heavy metals such as Cobalt has similar warnings as Cadmium. Lead paints seem much more toxic than Cadmiums and Cobalts and are banned within Europe but not the US.
So we get mixed messages from which we can only conclude to be careful and sensible. Why take any risks when pregnant?
Low Toxicity yet still a Risk
Small wounds on your fingers, rubbing your eye, eating a sandwich with paint on your hands can all pose a risk of getting toxic paints inside your body. Think also of sanding a painting in order to paint over it, or to smoothen the surface: you will be creating dust particles that are toxic to inhale. Think of dogs stealing a tube for a good chew, or kids playing with it.
If used sensibly Cadmium or Cobalt paints can be perfectly safe. But care needs to be taken. A bit of Cadmium won’t kill you overnight, but repeated carelessness can perhaps harm.
You don’t need to give up painting when you are pregnant
Of course it is a personal choice whether to ban these colours from your studio or not. Because I work in my home and my children and dog are walking in and out, I did ban them from my studio for a long time. While pregnant I did not want to inhale toxic fumes or run any risks handling toxic paints. After giving birth I still kept toxic materials well away from my studio. A dog or a toddler could, in theory, end up eating it after all. Now that my kids are bigger and they know very well not to touch mum’s paints, I use these oil colours if I think I need them (which is rare as there are plenty of colours to replace them). But I make sure they are well stored away at all times (as my dog never seems to grow up).
Solvents Pose the Highest Risk
What is much more important when pregnant, I believe, is the solvents and mediums oil painters use. Turps, turpenoids, white spirit, low odour solvents, driers; they are all toxic. The fumes are toxic. It is toxic on the skin. It is just toxic all round. That’s why it always states to use it only with good ventilation etc. So if you must use them while pregnant, make sure your windows or doors are open and you use gloves. I banned them completely when I was pregnant and had small kids. Even low odour solvents like Zest-it and Sansodor are still toxic (in varying degrees), so just be careful when you pregnant.
Use Common Sense
So my advice, for what it is worth, is to use solvents and mediums only if you must, making sure you use gloves and plenty of ventilation. Do not leave a jar of solvent open while working. Ideally, ban solvents and toxic mediums completely when pregnant. You can consider banning highly toxic paint colours such as cadmiums and Cobalts if you want, but if put away safely you can opt to keep on using them. I would definitely ban Lead Whites when pregnant (they are banned in Europe anyway). Whatever you decide to remove from your palette and brush, do know there are plenty of safe alternatives out there.