Artists and paintmakers can breathe a little easier now that the European Union has officially thrown out Sweden’s baffling proposal to ban cadmium pigment from paint.
According to the Art Newspaper, the European Commission announced the good news October 28, concluding that “the presence of cadmium in artists’ paints does not present an unacceptable risk to human health giving rise to a need to restrict the placing on the market of cadmium.”
It’s a great relief, as it’s hard to imagine painting without cadmium. The brilliant, lightfast pigment was discovered around 1820 and started appearing in artist’s red, yellow, and orange paints in the 1840s — just in time for Impressionist founder Claude Monet’s arrival in the world. They’re what gave us Monet’s haystacks, Van Gogh’s sunflowers, and Matisse’s red-drenched studio.
The European Chemical Agency (ECHA) began considering a ban on cadmium after the Swedish Chemicals Agency submitted a 197-page document calling for one in December 2013. Cadmium pigment is made with cadmium sulphide, a toxic heavy metal. It is not technically classified as hazardous by REACH, the EU body that advises the commission on chemicals, and it makes up only .1 percent of paints.
Nonetheless, the report argued that artists were polluting the environment by rinsing their cadmium-soaked brushes in the sink. The cadmium would find its way into sewage sludge that is spread on agricultural land and wind up polluting crops, and so increase the risk of cancer and other illnesses.
In November 2014, ECHA drafted an opinion not to accept Sweden’s proposal. In March 2015, after a period of public consultation, it decided to not accept Sweden’s proposal. It submitted its opinion to the European Commission in April, and the commission finally accepted it yesterday.
Rachel Volpe, a British paint-maker that campaigned against the ban, told The Art Newspaper that artists had successfully stressed “the economic and artistic importance of cadmiums as they uniquely bring warmth, light, strength and colour to paintings to stand the test of time.”
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As an artist who works with oil paint I certainly appreciate and use the intense, beautiful colours of cadmium, however, I am also very concerned with environmental issues, including the presence of toxicity in art supplies and artist practices. I find myself wondering if the “economic and artistic importance of cadmiums” outweighs the possible harm that comes from cadmiums turning up in water and soil. A way to clean brushes other than washing them in a sink is something for every artist to consider. Using non toxic brush cleaning products and rags is something I do normally and save rinsing for when the brushes appear to be entirely free of paint, but are residues of cadmium still present I wonder? My work is very important to me but not at the expense of the environment and the health of other beings.
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