Reproductive Hazards in the Scenic & Props Artist’s Workplace
Rebecca M. Burton, CIH, MPH
As an industrial hygienist, I am frequently asked by women what precautions they can take at work to ensure a safe and healthy pregnancy. It should come as no surprise that many of these women are artists. Perhaps no other profession is so widely all-encompassing in terms of production materials and the variety of “products” a worker can be asked to produce. And for these women, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that I don’t have a magic, comprehensive list of products or chemicals for you to use, that will allow you rock-solid confidence in their non-toxicity. The good news is that you do have the power to protect yourself and your baby, using a lot of common sense, a little bit of systematic planning, and knowledge, which will empower you to make deliberate decisions about the work environment and materials you accept. A bit more good news is that today, it is far easier to avoid reproductive toxins in art than it was in decades past. And in my experience, it’s easier for a theatrical artist to source alternatives than it is an independent visual artist. That does not absolve us of the responsibility to do our research, however.
To begin with, let’s talk a little bit about the term “reproductive toxin,” and the various types of effects these chemicals have on a person’s reproductive system or a developing baby. Some reproductive toxins affect the male or female reproductive system before conception even occurs—they can decrease sperm or egg count, disrupt reproductive cycles, or damage the organs necessary to fertilize, implant, or support an embryo (1). While this is a valid concern, my space here is limited and I was asked to focus specifically on pregnancy. The advice, however, will apply both to those already manufacturing tiny humans, and those attempting or hoping to do so in the future.
There are two main types of damage toxic substances can cause to the developing fetus: birth defects and toxic effects (2).
Birth defects are physical damages that occur during the development of organs and body parts. They are limited in their effects by what stage of pregnancy the exposure occurs in – the drug thalidomide, for example, will not have its terrible deformation effect if exposure only occurs in late pregnancy, once the fetus’s limbs have already been formed (3).
Toxic effects, conversely, are those that disrupt the proper functioning of the organs and body systems after they have been formed (4). Some chemicals present one or the other of these types of damage, some present both. There are a handful of chemicals or chemical classes that have been well-studied and are known to present specific types of hazards to users. There’s a link at the end of the article to a full list, but there are a few main groups that are most likely to turn up in the theater production shop, and these are solvents, metals, and endocrine disruptors (5).
It is best to avoid all solvents during pregnancy.
Solvents are organic chemicals which are used as thinners in place of water in paints, dyes, or other liquid or viscous media. Some very common ones in the scene shop include isopropyl alcohol, acetone, toluene, and glycol ethers, which you may not know by name but turn up very often in cleaning agents. You may find solvents hanging out in the ink you use to cartoon a drop, the paint stripper you use to refinish a piece of prop furniture, and the spray paints you use to reproduce the visual effect of powder coating (not an exhaustive list). I recently discovered one of the very worst of the glycol ethers, 2-methoxyethanol, comprising the main component of a binder being used in a 3D printer, with no ventilation or other controls being recommended by the manufacturer. Possibly the most common solvent, and the best studied, is the one that shows up not only in the supply cabinet but also at the “safety meeting” after work – ethyl alcohol. This is actually one of the least toxic solvents, and it’s bad enough for a developing fetus that the American Academy of Pediatrics stipulates that there is no safe amount of alcohol to be ingested during pregnancy (6).
It is best to avoid all solvents during pregnancy. Find a water-based alternative material, or delegate that task to someone else. Cut that piece from the show or change it into something that doesn’t require a solvent to make. And if you absolutely must, use the GESTIS Database to assess its toxicity first, and use the best controls and personal protective equipment (PPE) you can rig up (7).
The next bad actor in the scene shop cabinet is anything containing metals.
These are most obviously present in the form of bronzing powders, metallic paints, and other gilding materials, but they also comprise a significant chunk of common pigments. These include most of the elements found on the left-hand two thirds of the periodic table, and include both things we commonly “think of” as metal, like gold, silver, tin, or lead, but also things that tend to be referred to as “minerals,” such as calcium, magnesium, or potassium (8). Some of these are needed by the body for good health, but mostly in tiny amounts that are naturally encountered in food, or less naturally in the form of multivitamins or supplements (4). I can think of no circumstance in which metals exposure at work could be called beneficial to your health. Since almost all pigments contain some form of metal, this isn’t as easy to engineer out as solvents—but they also tend to be easier to control. Whereas solvents can easily be gases at room temperature, and thus present an inhalation hazard, metals are mainly going to be solids (except during welding), and you can completely control whether you aerosolize them (please don’t).
There are three main ways that toxic substances enter our bodies: Inhalation, Dermal Absorption, and Ingestion. And while some chemicals are more toxic by one route than others, it’s best to avoid exposure altogether. To keep your metals from becoming airborne, mix them into a liquid medium, and apply the mixture with a brush or other tool; don’t spray it. Then use good housekeeping to minimize surface contamination and use appropriate PPE to avoid skin contamination—and keep your food and drink out of the scene shop.
Spraying, in general, is a good thing to avoid while pregnant.
Equipment like airless sprayers and pneumatic sprayers aerosolize the paints you run through them, which means they make the liquids into droplets so tiny that they behave like gas instead of liquid. This makes them easier to inhale, and also gets them all over the place. Most scene shops I’ve been in did not have the type of spray booth or other ventilation necessary to adequately control exposure to sprayed materials. While removing sprays from your technique toolkit for a while may be inconvenient, it’s better than inhaling and contaminating your workplace with solvents and pigments that could harm you and your baby.
The third major class of chemicals you want to watch out for is that of endocrine disruptors.
These chemicals mimic the effect of hormones (particularly estrogen) naturally created in our bodies, resulting in an imbalance of hormone mixtures that can lead to adverse health effects (2). Some more common of these include bisphenol A and phthalate plasticizers, which are commonly found as additives in epoxies, clays, and resins, and dioxins and PCBs, which are found in many dyes (4). Here again, you can easily control your exposure to these by wearing appropriate PPE and using ventilation – and if you don’t have access to ventilation, try to engineer the material out of your process, or delegate the task.
The main concept this all comes down to is “know your materials.”
Use the material labels and safety data sheets, supplemented by chemical references like GESTIS, to learn whatever you can about the materials you’re planning to use. Try to avoid at all costs firstly any that warn that they “may damage fertility or the unborn child,” and secondly, any that could make you ill as well. If you can’t find out enough about a substance to make you feel comfortable managing the risks, or if what you need to manage the risk is not available to you, don’t use it.
One invaluable resource to anyone trying to learn more about reproductive hazards is the Proposition 65 List of chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm (9). This website includes every substance on the list, its health effects, and its basis for inclusion on the list. Click on the chemical name, and you’ll have access to all the toxicity data available for the chemical, as well as public notes and publications pertaining to it. This list is especially important because most states require disclosure of these ingredients in materials at a lower proportion than the Globally Harmonized System – so you can find them down in section 15 of your SDS even if they and their hazards are not listed in sections 3 and 2.
Other resources include your personal physician or a board-certified occupational medicine physician. One of my main references for this article is the work of Monona Rossol, the president of Arts, Crafts, and Theater Safety. Accept help from your community, avoid exposure, and protect yourself.
It can be scary and overwhelming trying to navigate the world knowing a tiny, fragile being is counting on you alone for its life and health. But with some forethought, research, and advice you can lower your risk of an adverse birth outcome as low as possible. Best of luck, and welcome to parenthood!
- Mattison,D.R.: The mechanisms of action of reproductive toxons. Am J Ind Med 4(1-2):65-79 (1983).
- Rossol,M.: The Artist’s Complete Health and Safety Guide. New York,New York: Allworth Press,2001.
- Vargesson, N.: Thalidomide-induced teratogenesis: history and mechanisms. Birth defects research. Part C, Embryo today : reviews 105(2): 140-156 (2015).
- Rossol, M.: The Health and Safety Guide for Film, TV, and Theater. New York, NY: Allworth Press, 2011.
- Rim, K.-T.: Reproductive Toxic Chemicals at Work and Efforts to Protect Workers’ Health: A Literature Review. Safety and health at work 8(2): 143-150 (2017).
- Williams, J.F., and V.C. Smith: Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. Pediatrics 136(5): e1395 (2015).
- Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of the German Social Accident Insurance: GESTIS Substance Database. Germany: IFA, 2018.
- Dayah, M.: “Ptable: the Interactive Periodic Table.” [Online] Available at https://ptable.com, 1997).9
- California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment: “Proposition 65 List.” [Online] Available at https://oehha.ca.gov/proposition-65/proposition-65-list, 2018).
Rebecca Burton started her career as a Scenic Artist before becoming an Industrial Hygienist for 3M. Thankfully, she’s remained close to the Performing Arts community, and her powerful and informed interest in safety on the job ought to be an inspiration for us all.
The Guild would like to humbly thank the team over at Technical Tools of the Trade for running the original version of this article. Tech Tools’ goal is to teach the technical skills of theatre art and design while fostering and encouraging an environment of curiosity, and the open sharing of knowledge of skills.
Want to know more about Reproductive Health and the Products We Use? Member Sara Herman recommends alternatives to unsafe scenic products in another great article from Tech Tools.