Is Cadmium Paint Toxic?

Is Cadmium Paint Toxic?

with 19 Comments

Is cadmium paint toxic? Sometimes students ask me in my workshops whether certain colors are dangerous to use. Cadmium-based colors have been around for many years but tend to be among the most often in question. As I’ve researched this, there seems to be some misinformation regarding the toxicity of cadmium in artist paints.

Dangers of Cadmium

Cadmium is found naturally in the earth’s crust but is a relatively rare metal. (Which may explain the high price tag on cadmium paint colors!) Cadmium often couples with other elements in a variety of compounds. Some of these are are extremely toxic and dissolve easily in water, making them dangerous to humans.

The label on the back of a tube of Cadmium Yellow Light oil paint from M. Graham & Co.

Cadmium is also dangerous if inhaled in its dust or powder form. Some of the earliest cases of cadmium poisoning were reported in Belgium in 1858. Workers had inhaled cadmium dust as a result of polishing silver with cadmium carbonate. This kind of exposure can cause severe respiratory distress, emphysema, and even death.

The U.S. government has responded as we have learned more about these dangers. Agencies including the EPA, OSHA and the FDA have implemented regulations for air, water, soil and food in order to minimize cadmium’s impact on public health. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, foods account for more than 90 percent of human exposure to cadmium. On average, people consume about 30 micrograms of cadmium daily through a normal diet, absorbing 1 to 3 micrograms. There is currently no evidence that these trace levels pose a hazard to healthy, non-smoking adults. However, studies have shown that smokers can absorb twice that amount per day.¹

The United States is the world’s primary producer of cadmium, generating an estimated 1,100 tons of the metal per year. Artist colors account for only a small portion of the demand for this dangerous metal. About three quarters of the U.S. output is used in the production of rechargeable Nickel-Cadmium (Ni-Cad) batteries.

But what about us artists?

Pigment manufacturing became big business in the nineteenth century, not only for artists but also for industrial and printing applications. When the powerful, intense cadmium colors were developed, ranging from yellows to oranges to reds, artists eagerly added them to their palettes.²

Since then, artists have become increasingly aware of the importance of studio safety. Paint manufacturers recommended that you don’t eat, drink or smoke while painting in order to avoid ingesting potentially harmful substances from paints, solvents, etc. But what about skin exposure? Given what we now know, should we wear gloves and masks while we paint with cadmium colors? 

We know cadmium is toxic. But is cadmium paint toxic?

Expression • 16x20 inches • Oil on Linen Panel • Sold • Giclee prints of this painting available in the Shop.
I used quite a bit of cadmium paint in this piece.

When I visited the M. Graham & Co. factory in 2015, I asked specifically about the toxicity of cadmium colors. They told me that by law, paint manufacturers are allowed to make cadmium colors only a few specified days each year because of the dangers associated with cadmium dust. Proper respiratory equipment is required during production to avoid inhalation of the powdered cadmium pigment.

However, during the paint-making process the pigment is fused with sulfides and coated in the particular medium’s binder (oil, acrylic, gouache or watercolor). This process renders the cadmium insoluble in water, and therefore the human body. We can’t absorb it. So no gloves are necessary. And cadmium paints don’t give off any dust or fumes, so no worries about inhalation either.³ I’ve just recently spoken again with a paint manufacturer who said that the paint-making process makes cadmium colors safe in oil, acrylic, gouache and watercolor.

With that said, you DO need to use extra caution if you’re sanding dry cadmium paint or spray-applying. If that’s you, make sure you wear a NIOSH dust respirator to eliminate the chance of inhaling cadmium particles. (Or any other harmful particles / dust.) The same advice applies if you work at all with dry cadmium or other pigments. (For example, if you like to make your own paint.)

Also, please avoid pouring your dirty brush-cleaning water or solvent down the drain or onto the ground. This can introduce heavy metals like cadmium into the watershed, possibly creating problems downstream. It’s recommended that you soak up your dirty water / dirty solvent with paper towels then throw them away in your studio trash.

An Applicable Personal Experience

Edgar and his brother Claude around the time of The Incident.
Edgar and his brother Claude around the time of The Incident.

Several years ago, our cat Edgar (named after the artist Edgar Payne) leapt up onto my palette table and his paw landed in my pile of cadmium red oil paint. He immediately jumped down and proceeded to run all over the house leaving little cadmium red footprints across the beige carpet. (Guess he had a secret desire to live up to his artist name.) He hid under a table and began licking his paw to try to clean himself up, getting cadmium red oil paint in his mouth and all over his face at the same time. My panic began — “Ahhh, the carpet!” Then, “Ahhh, is cadmium toxic?”

After doing my best to wash the paint off of Edgar using soap and water, I called poison control. They said that the small amount of paint he ingested would likely not harm him. And sure enough, Edgar is now 13 years old and still going strong. (Although to this day he hates being held upside down on his back, possibly still traumatized by being held that way as I cleaned off the paint!) The carpet actually came clean too after my wife and I spent a couple of hours on hands and knees with a bit of carpet cleaner.

The Good News

So, is cadmium paint toxic? Based on the above, as long as you’re not sanding or spray-applying, the answer is no! Great news, eh? You can safely use cadmium colors to your heart’s content — oil, acrylic, gouache and watercolor. Even if you happen to get some on your paws. 🐾


References:

  1. The Facts on Cadmium, http://www.dartmouth.edu/~toxmetal/toxic-metals/more-metals/cadmium-faq.html
  2. Cadmium Yellow, http://artsupplydepo.com/arc-en-ciel/2017/6/27/arc-en-ciel-vol-viii-cadmium-yellow
  3. Studio Safety, https://www.gamblincolors.com/studio-safety/studio-safety-create-without-compromise/

19 Responses

  1. Stephanie
    | Reply

    Poor Edgar! Very insightful, thanks!

  2. Michael R Baum
    | Reply

    Thanks for this informative article and a little peace-of-mind. I wear gloves when I paint and will continue to do so, if for no other reason than to keep my hands clean.

    • Dan Schultz
      | Reply

      Solvents and possibly other oil mediums may still be harmful, so gloves can give you extra peace of mind.

  3. Virginia Beale
    | Reply

    Thanks Dan! Great article!

  4. Janis Commentz
    | Reply

    Thank you Dan for doing the research! It would be difficult to give up cadmium, especially cadmium red pale! Glad Edgar is fine, too. I enjoy hearing from you, as always.

  5. Jenny Steenkamp
    | Reply

    Thank you for doing the research and sharing it. It sure was something to worry about.

  6. Peggy Rohr
    | Reply

    Thank you for a very informed article. What about toxicity in other paint materials? Lead white, flake white, zinc white, the blue colours and so on? Can they be absorbed through the skin? Should we wear gloves for those? Turpentime substitute that is non-toxic?

    • Dan Schultz
      | Reply

      You’ll have to do some research of your own — I don’t know enough about each of these. Maybe I’ll do a future post….

  7. Kay Zetlmaier
    | Reply

    Enjoyed reading and learning about the Cadmiums. I’m going to share with my students. Thanks so much Dan.

  8. John
    | Reply

    Thanks Dan for the thorough, in depth research. As a trained researcher as well as an oil painter, I can appreciate that.
    My cat “Buddy” also decided to take his foray into the artistic realm by boldly licking Cad Yellow straight from the palette, leaving a circle of residue all around his mouth, whiskers, nose and tongue. Of course I immediately freaked out and did my best to give him a cat-bath, which then left my tongue looking quite yellow (just kidding about that of course! [thank you Steve Martin for the inspiration for that quip]). But once I got off all that I could, I figured that what was left did not pose a great danger and he’s been fine since.
    The research I have read on exposure to lead is more ominous, since it accumulates in vivo and leaves (in mammals at least). It just keeps building up over time.
    While painting I like to wear a good, thick dishwashing glove on my left hand (since I am right-handed) with the upper portion trimmed about 2″ above the wrist for handling rags and other nasties. I do this mainly because it has always been my habit, and because I don’t like to have that stuff on my hand where it will get onto other things.

    • Dan Schultz
      | Reply

      Haha — cats and their attraction to paint! I don’t think gloves are a bad idea overall, considering potentially harmful solvents and other oil mediums that one might use.

  9. Rob Anglin
    | Reply

    Dan:

    It sounds like I should resume my use of gloves while painting in gouache, Though I rarely get paint onto my fingers or into my cuticles, it can happen, and my Cadmium Red & Orange pigments are water-soluble, since they are gouache. Cobalt pigments are another set of toxics to be wary of, and I am unaware of any Lead White even being available in gouache (I use Titanium and Zinc Whites), General good hygiene and work habits (including gloves while working in water-based media sounds like a “plan”‘.

    Edgar and Claude have a distant cousin named Xeno who lives in our house. (Xeno is a black cat with yellow-gold eyes).

    Rob

    • Dan Schultz
      | Reply

      That’s a really great question Rob. I would say to contact the company who makes your gouache and see what they say about cadmium toxicity in water-based paint. I didn’t focus my research in that direction but it would be great to know. I suspect that the paint would not be toxic in its paint form, just like the cadmium in oil paint, due to the manufacturing process and the fact that it has been suspended in whatever binder is used in gouache or watercolor. But it would be great to know for sure.

    • Dan Schultz
      | Reply

      Good news Rob — I spoke to a paint manufacturer yesterday and was told that the paint-making process renders cadmium safe even in water-based media. I’ve updated my post above.

  10. Elisa
    | Reply

    How about Cadmium base water soluble oils? there are more dangerous than the regular oil paints because they are soluble in water???

    • Dan Schultz
      | Reply

      I don’t think water-based cadmiums would be toxic. I think the paint making process renders the cadmium insoluble either way. Just because you can mix the paint using water doesn’t make the pigment soluble in water (as far as my thinking goes). But I will try to verify that.

    • Dan Schultz
      | Reply

      Good news Elisa — I spoke to a paint manufacturer yesterday and was told that the paint-making process renders cadmium safe even in water-based media. I’ve updated my post above.

  11. Diane
    | Reply

    Thanks Dan for this great article. I have been concerned myself about the toxic potential of pastel paints. A lot of painters I know wear gloves, as a pastel artist I have my hands on the medium constantly when painting and of course there is dust. Do you have any insight to the dangers in pastels. I have tried gloves but find them difficult to work in when blending.

    • Dan Schultz
      | Reply

      I don’t have much experience with pastel and don’t have any connections with pastel manufacturers. My guess is that they’re not using metals like cadmium to make their colors but I don’t know for sure. You’ll have to do some research about this yourself. I’d love it if you would comment here with anything you can find out.

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