the development of polymer paints came out of
the field of the chemistry of plastics that
emerged in the late 19th century,
so both fields are connected in many ways
below, an in-depth overview,
for additional reference
Plastics in Art:
Safety and Overview
are used widely in many artistic applications, including: sculpture
made from finished or formed plastics, the fabrication of props for
theater and film, special effect make up, and plastics are used by
museums and galleries in exhibits, displays, transportation and storage
Working with plastic resins involves chemically
linking together many small molecules (monomers) to form the plastic (a
polymer), or cross-linking many polymer chains with monomers to form a
thermosetting plastic. Hardeners initiate the reaction.
accelerators, fillers, pigments and dyes, and other additives are also
used. Resins can be molded, cast, laminated, and foamed.
with finished plastics involves changing the plastic physically, rather
than chemically. These processes include heating, softening, bending,
gluing, machining, sawing, finishing, and similar mechanical processes.
resins can be used for both casting plastics and acrylic cements.
There are two types: monomer and monomer/polymer mixtures. Both types
use benzoyl peroxide as the hardener. The monomer is methyl
Polymerization is carried out at high temperatures which must be controlled carefully.Hazards
1. Methyl methacrylate monomer is moderately toxic by skin contact,
eye contact, and inhalation. It is an irritant and causes headaches,
irritability, and narcosis when inhaled. It is a common sensitizer, and
may cause asthma.
2. Benzoyl peroxide hardener is flammable
and explosive, and is a slight skin and eye irritant. See the section
on Organic Peroxides later in the chapter for further details.
3. Finely divided acrylic polymer dust is also a sensitizer.
1. Wear gloves and have good local exhaust ventilation when using
acrylic resins. If local exhaust ventilation is not possible, use a
window exhaust fan, and wear a NIOSH-approved organic vapor respirator,
2. See section below for more information on peroxides.
3. Wear an NIOSH-approved toxic dust mask when handling finely divided acrylic polymer dust. Amino and Phenolic Resins
melamine-formaldehyde, phenol-formaldehyde, and resorcinol-formaldehyde
resins are used as thermosetting adhesives and, in the case of
phenol-formaldehyde, as a binder in sand casting. These are usually
available as two-component systems with formaldehyde or paraformaldehyde
as the hardener. While urea-formaldehyde and resorcinol-formaldehyde
resins can be cured at room temperature, the others require heat.Hazards
1. Amino and phenolic resins contain formaldehyde, which is highly
toxic by inhalation, highly toxic by eye contact and ingestion, and
moderately toxic by skin contact. Formaldehyde is an irritant and
strong sensitizer, and is a probable human carcinogen.
2. Phenol in phenol-formaldehyde resin is highly toxic by skin absorption and inhalation, and can severely burn skin.
3. If these resins are improperly cured and contain residual
formaldehyde, they may cause irritation and allergic reactions. Trace
amounts of free formaldehyde may cause allergic reactions in people who
are already sensitized to it.
4. Machining, sanding, or
excessive heating of the cured resins can cause decomposition releasing
formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide (with amino resins) and
phenol (with phenol-formaldehyde resins).
1. Avoid using formaldehyde resin systems.
2. Wear gloves when handling amino and phenolic resins. Follow instructions carefully for proper curing.
3. Local exhaust ventilation is necessary if handling the cured resin involves heating and/or decomposition.
4. People who have become sensitized to formaldehyde will probably have to avoid these resins. Epoxy Resins
resins are used for casting, laminating, and molding, and as
adhesives. When mixed with stone or metal dusts, they resemble actual
stone or metal. Epoxy resins consist of two components: the epoxy
resin; and hardeners, which are often amines. Mixing gives off heat
which can vaporize solvents and other components.Hazards
1. Epoxy resins are moderately toxic skin and respiratory irritants
and sensitizers. Resins containing diglycidyl ethers are probable
human carcinogens, skin and eye irritants, and may damage the bone
2. Amine hardeners are moderately toxic by skin
contact and highly toxic by inhalation. They are potent skin
sensitizers and irritants, causing dermatitis in almost 50% of workers
regularly exposed to them. They also can cause asthma, coughing,
bronchospasm, and other respiratory difficulties.
Other hardeners are
3. Epoxy resins contain solvents of varying toxicity. Precautions
1. Wear goggles and gloves when using epoxy resins.
2. Use with local exhaust ventilation, or work at a bench against a
window with a window exhaust fan. If ventilation is not adequate, wear
a NIOSH-approved respirator with organic vapor cartridges for large
3. If the epoxy system contains flammable solvents,
follow careful safety procedures for fire prevention (see our data sheet
on Fire Prevention for more information).
dermatitis due to epoxy products frequently involves the exposed parts
of the body, with the typical clinical features of an airborne contact
dermatitis. Epoxy resins are in fact included in both the list of
irritant and allergic contactants. We report here 7 cases of airborne
occupational contact dermatitis due to epoxy products. (Artists
working with epoxy resins and glues must not only avoid skin contact,
but should have good ventilation in order to prevent airborne contact
with the epoxy vapors. - Ed.)]Polyester Resin
resins are used for laminating, molding, and casting. For molding and
laminating, fiberglass is the most commonly used reinforcement. In most
polyester resins, styrene is used as the cross-linker; other
cross-linkers include methyl methacrylate, vinyl toluene, and
alpha-methyl styrene. Ketone solvents are sometimes included. Methyl
ethyl ketone peroxide is the commonest hardener, although benzoyl
peroxide and cumene hydroperoxide are also sometimes used. Promoters or
accelerators used with polyester resin include cobalt naphthenate and
1. Styrene is moderately toxic by skin contact and highly toxic by
inhalation. It is absorbed through the skin. Styrene is a probable
human carcinogen, a potent narcotic, and a respiratory and eye irritant,
causing coughing and burning of the eyes and nose. Styrene can also
possibly damage the liver and nervous system. While it has good initial
odor-warning properties, olfactory fatigue may set in. Vinyl toluene
and alpha-methyl styrene have similar toxicity to styrene. Methyl
methacrylate is discussed above.
2. Cobalt naphthenate is moderately toxic by skin contact and inhalation, and possibly causes allergies.
3. Dimethylaniline is highly toxic by skin absorption and
inhalation causing methemoglobinemia (in which the hemoglobin in the red
blood cells is converted into a form which will not release oxygen),
resulting in cyanosis. Primary symptoms are a bluish discoloration of
the lips, ears, and nail beds, and then headaches, weakness, and oxygen
4. The hazards of peroxide catalysts are discussed below.
5. Fiberglass is a skin and respiratory irritant. Inhalation of
fiberglass dust created by cutting fiberglass or sanding the cured
fiberglass-containing polyester can cause irritation and other
respiratory problems. The classification of fiberglass is "reasonably
anticipated to be a carcinogen," by the U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services, and "possibly carcinogenic" to humans by the
International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
Styrene, vinyl toluene, a-methyl styrene, and cleaning solvents such as
methyl ethyl ketone are flammable. Acetone is extremely flammable.Precautions
1. Wear gloves and protective goggles when pouring and handling polyester resins.
2. Use in a local exhaust hood or use a window exhaust fan with a
NIOSH-approved organic vapor respirator. Large scale polyester resin
use should be done in a large spray booth or while wearing a
3. Clean up any spills immediately. Cover the work area with disposable paper towels or newspapers.
4. Do not use styrene for clean-up; instead, use acetone.
5. Wear clothing that covers the arms and legs and remove immediately after work; then shower.
6. Wear a NIOSH-approved toxic dust respirator when cutting
fiberglass or sanding the cured sculpture. If the sculpture is not
completely cured, wear organic vapor cartridges as well.
7. Cover exposed skin (neck, face) with a protective barrier cream.
8. Wear heavy neoprene rubber when handling dimethylaniline
accelerator. Be very careful not to spill it on clothing since it can
permeate through the material.
9. Store flammable solvents
safely. Do not use solvents or resin near an open flame or lit
cigarette. Store solvent or resin-soaked rags or paper in an approved
self-closing waste disposal can which is emptied every day.
10. See below for information on organic peroxides. Polyurethane Resins
resins can be used to make elastomers (e.g. coatings and molds),
adhesives, and rigid or flexible foams. They are usually two-component
systems, consisting of Part A - the polyol, and Part B - the isocyanates
used to cross-link the polyol. The polyol also contains such as metal
salts or amine catalysts. Foaming systems also contain blowing agents,
often fluorocarbons (e.g., freons).
Polyurethane elastomer resins can
be one or two component systems. The one-component systems are air or
moisture cured. Most household urethane varnishes and paints do not
contain isocyanates, but are the finished polyurethane dissolved in
solvents, which dry by evaporation.Hazards
1. Isocyanates are extremely toxic by inhalation, causing
bronchitis, bronchospasm, chemical pneumonia, and severe acute and
chronic asthma at very low concentrations, even in people without a
prior history of allergies. They also cause severe eye irritation.
Methyl isocyanate was the chemical that killed over 2500 people in
Bhopal, India when released into the atmosphere several years ago.
degree of hazard depends on the volatility of the diisocyanate and its
physical form. TDI (toluene diisocyanate) is the most volatile and the
most hazardous. MDI (diphenyl methane diisocyanate) is less volatile
and, less hazardous than TDI. Polymeric isocyanates usually contain
about 50% MDI. If heated or sprayed, any isocyanate is extremely
hazardous. Note that isocyanates cannot be detected by odor until the
concentration is many times higher than recommended levels.
2. Amines used as catalysts are moderately toxic by skin or eye
contact or inhalation since they are sensitizers and irritants.
3. Organotin compounds used as catalysts are
highly toxic by skin absorption, damaging the liver and nervous
system. They may also cause skin allergies and irritation.
Fluorocarbon blowing agents used for foaming are slightly toxic by
inhalation. They can cause narcosis at high concentrations, changes in
the heart rhythm (arrhythmia), and even cardiac arrest at very high
5. One-component polyurethane systems
using precapped isocyanate polymers are less hazardous than the
two-component systems due to low volatility, unless they are sprayed.
6. Dust from sanding and cutting finished polyurethane may cause
skin and respiratory problems due to the presence of unreacted chemicals
from the curing process.
7. Heating polyurethane is highly
hazardous, since decomposition products include carbon monoxide,
nitrogen oxides, acrolein, and hydrogen cyanide, all of which are highly
or extremely toxic by inhalation.Precautions
1. Do not work with polyurethane resins if you have any history of allergies, asthma or other respiratory problems.
2. Do not spray polyurethane resins unless it is done inside a
spray booth or you wear a supplied-air respirator (e.g. self- contained
3. Mix polyurethane resins in a local
exhaust hood, or wear a NIOSH-approved full face gas mask with organic
vapor canister or air-supplied respirator. Use an exhaust fan to remove
the vapors from the room.
4. Wear gloves and goggles when handling these resins.
5. When sawing, sanding, or otherwise fabricating polyurethane,
wear a NIOSH-approved respirator with organic vapor cartridges and toxic
dusts and mists prefilters. Silicones and Natural Rubbers
and natural rubber can be used as sealants, adhesives, molds, and mold
releases. There are two basic types of silicone resins:
single-component systems that are cured by atmospheric moisture; and
two-component systems that are cured by peroxides. These can contain
solvents such as acetone or methylene chloride. Water-based natural
rubber latex can also be used to make molds. Other compounds include
rubber or contact cements containing rubber dissolved in solvents such
as hexane, naphtha, and 1,1,1-trichloroethane. Rubber cements and latex
rubber dry by evaporation.Hazards
1. Single-component silicones (including spray types) release
acetic acid or methanol into the air. The acetic acid is irritating to
the eyes and respiratory system. Methanol is a nervous system poison
and is moderately toxic by inhalation.
2. The silicone resin in two-component systems is moderately toxic and irritating by skin contact.
3. See below for the hazards of peroxides.
4. Natural rubber latexes contain skin-irritating chemicals, and can cause severe allergic reactions in some people.
5. n-Hexane, found in some rubber cements and contact adhesives, is
extremely flammable, and can cause peripheral nervous system damage
6. Methylene chloride is highly toxic by
inhalation. It may cause narcosis and changes in heart rhythm
(arrhythmia). It is also converted into carbon monoxide in the body.
Smokers and people with heart problems are at higher risk.
1,1,1-Trichloroethane is moderately toxic by inhalation, and can cause
death at very high concentrations (e.g. in enclosed spaces).Precautions
1. Substitute water-based or heptane-based rubber cements and contact adhesives.
2. Use rubber cements containing hexane with good ventilation to
prevent build-up of vapors. Do not allow smoking or open flames when
hexane or acetone is present. Store large amounts (greater than one
pint) in approved safety containers.
3. People with heart problems should not use methylene chloride-containing products.
4. Wear gloves and goggles when handling silicone resins, rubber latex or solvents.
5. See the section on organic peroxides. Organic Peroxides
peroxides are commonly used as hardeners or catalysts (more accurately
initiators) for curing polyester, acrylic, and some types of silicone
resins. Common peroxides used are benzoyl peroxide, methyl ethyl ketone
peroxide (not to be confused with the solvent methyl ethyl ketone), and
cumene hydroperoxide. Usually these peroxides come as liquids or
pastes dissolved in materials like dimethyl phthalate.Hazards
1. All organic peroxides are highly flammable and often explosive.
Benzoyl peroxide becomes a shock-sensitive explosive above 120øF (49øC)
and explodes above 176øF (80 øC). Methyl ethyl ketone peroxide (MEK
peroxide) can decompose by sunlight and explodes above 230øF (110øC); it
is extremely shock sensitive. These peroxides can also decompose
explosively when mixed with mineral acids, plastic resin accelerators,
and many combustibles. MEK peroxide forms an explosive mixture with
2. Methyl ethyl ketone peroxide can cause blindness
if splashed in the eyes. Cumene hydroperoxide is moderately toxic by
skin and eye contact and may have cumulative effects. It may also cause
allergies. Benzoyl peroxide is only slightly toxic by skin contact,
and somewhat more toxic by eye contact. Precautions
1. Store peroxides separately from other combustible materials, and keep in original (never glass) containers.
2. Do not store large amounts of organic peroxides, or keep them for long periods of time.
3. Never dilute peroxides with other materials. Never add accelerators to peroxides, or acetone to MEK peroxide.
4. Do not heat peroxides.
5. Use disposable paper cups and wooden sticks for mixing small
amounts of resin and peroxide. Otherwise use polyethylene, glass, or
stainless steel containers.
6. Soak all tools and containers in water before disposal.
7. Clean up spills immediately by soaking up the peroxide with
vermiculite if in liquid form, or with wet vermiculite if in powder or
paste form. Do not sweep since this has been known to start fires. Use
nonsparking tools to clean up.
8. Do not discard unused
peroxide or peroxide/vermiculite mixtures; this can cause a fire or
explosion. Peroxides can be disposed of by reacting with the plastic
resin or by carefully reacting with a 10% sodium hydroxide solution.
plastics (Wikipedia image)Finished Plastics
sheets, blocks, and film can be fabricated by cutting, drilling,
carving, sawing, heating, vacuum forming, and many other methods which
use physical tools or processes.
plastics which can be treated in this way include acrylic (lucite,
Plexiglas), polyvinyl chloride, polystyrene, polyethylene, and
polypropylene. Foamed plastics (e.g. polystyrene and polyurethane) can
also be sawed, sanded, and heated to form it into various shapes. Some
plastics, such as polystyrene, polyvinyl acetate, and polyvinyl
chloride, are available as molding pellets which can be heated in a
Plastics can be glued with solvent cements or other adhesives.Hazards
1. Some polymer dusts may cause irritation or allergies if inhaled
due to the presence of an unreacted monomer of other additives.
Examples are phenolic and amino plastics, acrylic powder, and
2. Heat decomposition of
finished plastics can result from processes such as hot wire cutting,
electric sanding, drilling, and sawing, producing highly toxic gases
such as carbon monoxide, monomers, nitrogen oxides and hydrogen cyanide.
3. Heating acrylic plastic results in decomposition to the monomer
methyl methacrylate, a respiratory irritant, sensitizer and narcotic
(see the section on Acrylic Resins).
decomposition of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) occurs above about 400øF
(205øC), releasing highly toxic hydrogen chloride gas. Exposure can
cause "meatwrappers asthma", a disease noted among meatwrappers who hot
wire PVC film.
5. Heat decomposition of
foamed polystyrene (styrofoam) or polyurethane can release a large
variety of highly toxic gases including nitrogen oxides, hydrogen
cyanide, carbon monoxide, and monomers (e.g., styrene).
6. Heating polyfluorocarbons can cause polymer fume fever, a
disease similar to metal fume fever, with symptoms of nausea, chills,
fever, headaches, coughing, and shortness of breath. This is often
caused by smoking a cigarette in the presence of fluorocarbon dust. The
cigarette's heat is high enough to decompose the fluorocarbon.
7. Many of the solvents used to cement plastics are highly toxic.
Acrylic cements in particular commonly contain chlorinated hydrocarbons
such as ethylene dichloride or methylene chloride. Both are probable
human carcinogens and narcotics, especially ethylene dichloride, which
can also cause liver and kidney damage. Methylene chloride is converted
into carbon monoxide in the body and can cause heart arrhythmias. This
is especially hazardous for smokers and people with heart problems.
1. Have good general ventilation or local exhaust ventilation when
fabricating plastics. Use water-cooled or air-cooled tools to keep
decomposition of the plastic to a minimum. In heat fabrication
processes, use the lowest temperature possible to avoid decomposition of
2. You may need an organic vapor
respirator to work safely with acrylic plastics if you do not have
adequate ventilation. Use a NIOSH-approved respirator with combination
organic vapor/acid gas cartridges with PVC.
3. Sanders, saws, and other electric tools that generate a lot of dust should be equipped with dust-collectors.
4. Clean up by vacuuming or wet mopping; not sweeping.
5. Wear gloves and goggles when handling solvent cements. Use as
low toxicity a solvent as possible, for example, acetone instead of
used with plastics and their resins include plasticizers, stabilizers
(e.g., ultraviolet absorbers andantioxidants), colorants (dyes and
pigments), fillers (e.g., talc, quartz, clay, fused silica),
reinforcements (e.g., fiberglass), fire retardants, inhibitors,
accelerators, and solvents. Inhibitors and plasticizers may be already
in the resin or added later.Hazards and Precautions
additives are discussed in other CSA data sheets: mineral additives,
and phthalate plasticizers - "Traditional Sculpture;" pigments - "Art
Painting and Drawing;" and dyes - "Dyeing Safely."
organic phosphate esters can be absorbed through the skin, and
inhalation or ingestion may cause central nervous system damage,
possibly leading to paralysis, convulsions or anesthetic effects. Some
act like mild nerve gases, and are skin, eye, and respiratory system
irritants. Examples are tributyl phosphate, tri-para-cresyl phosphate,
and the most toxic tri-orthocresyl phosphate (TOCP), which should be
* This data sheet was adapted from chapter 16 of Artist Beware by Michael McCann.Art Hazard News, Volume 18, No. 4, 1995
Epoxy Resin and Dermatitis Insert: Art Hazard News, Volume 12, No. 1, 1989 This article was originally printed for Art Hazard News, © copyright Center for Safety in the Arts 1989 and 1995. It appears on nontoxicprint
courtesy of the Health in the Arts Program, University of Illinois at
Chicago, who have curated a collection of these articles from their
archive which are still relevant to artists today.