Is cadmium paint toxic? Cadmium-based colors have been around for many years but tend to be among the most often in question. Artist and instructor Dan Schultz has researched this; here, he shares what he found regarding the toxicity of cadmium in artist paints.
Is Cadmium Paint Toxic?
By Dan Schultz
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. It 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.
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.*
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?
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.** 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.