ARTICLE BY SARA HERMAN
I became a painter because I loved the art of it. I enjoyed the problem solving of taking a rendering and figuring out how to recreate and enhance it for the stage. Lo and behold, the more I painted, the more I realized I really should have minored in chemistry as well. To be a responsible painter it is important to familiarize yourself with the chemicals you are using; which ingredients are harmful, how they are harmful, how they react to other chemicals.
Painters, carpenters, and other technicians are asked to use products with carcinogens all the time in theatre. It’s just an unfortunate truth in the industry. We use products designed for commercial or industrial use because we need our scenery to withstand tap shoes, faux rain, heavy traffic, etc. It’s in our own hands to protect ourselves against these carcinogens by adhering to safe shop practices. With regards to reproductive health, even further research is required. The labeling is less clear. Researching these products often can lead to a swirling rabbit hole of confusing terms and scientific jargon. It makes me want to hold my head and scream “Why didn’t I do better in my high school chemistry class?” Or frankly “Why don’t I remember anything from my high school chemistry class at all?”
I have found the OEHHA website helpful in this research; https://oehha.ca.gov/proposition-65/chemicals. Safety Data Sheets (SDS) don’t always mention if the products contain reprotoxic substances (chemicals that cause birth defects and reproductive harm), even if the product’s container has the familiar warning of “This product may contain a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.” The California Proposition 65 warning itself lumps together cancer causing ingredients with ingredients causing reproductive harm. They maybe one and the same in some instances, but a blanket statement shouldn’t be made for all 800 chemicals on the Prop 65 list. It would be great if the labels were to clarify which products contain carcinogenic ingredients and which were reprotoxic ingredients, if that knowledge exists.
In an ideal world, a painter wouldn’t have to work while pregnant or breast feeding so they could avoid being exposed to chemicals, but for most people that is not an option. They need that income especially since the majority of us are freelancers and don’t get maternity leave. However, there are measures you can take to protect yourselves and your baby while pregnant or breast feeding. Stay away from products containing cadmium and organic solvents like toluene, benzene, glycol ethers, carbon disulphide and tetrachloroethylene. Or to clarify that gobbly goop avoid spray paints and paint thinners altogether. As well as two part component products, dyes, flame retardants and some varnishes and silk screening inks. Organic solvents are harmful when inhaled or on the skin, so if you are unsure about a product wear the appropriate gloves when painting and a respirator with the appropriate filter when spraying. These measures should be taken whether you and your partner are planning to become pregnant or not. It’s just good shop practice.
When looking through an SDS it’s important to look at the percentages of the ingredients. The Prop 65 warning goes on products even if only 1% of the product’s ingredients are on the Prop 65 list. It is unlikely that any harm will come to the user with that low of a dose, especially if it is a specialty product bought for a certain effect and not an everyday shop product. Also research how a product is harmful. For instance, Titanium dioxide makes up around 15-25% of every product that is white in color. It is in just about everything. While it is a Prop 65 chemical as a carcinogen, it is only harmful in dust form and not when bound in liquid. So if you are looking out for you reproductive health it is most likely fine to use as long as you don’t any sanding after using the products. Work within your comfort level, but by arming yourself with the knowledge of how a chemical is harmful, you can work more confidently with a product.
Finally, I am not an expert and don’t pretend to be; just a curious and cautious painter. Everyone must be their own safety advocate and read up on the products they are using. If you have questions about a certain chemical or product, bring the SDS to your doctor. These are just some notes I’ve collected while freelancing and I welcome other people’s suggestions and observations. The following chart is meant as a jumping off point for those who are in a time in their life when they are watching their reproductive health. The proposed replacement products are sometimes more expensive than the original. That is something to consider with your budget and/or employer.