WORKING WITH PASTELS SAFELY
By Lynn Howarth PGE
After a recent health scare due to breathing in too much pastel dust I thought it might be a good idea to look into the health and safety aspects of working with pastels. A few weeks ago I spent a day experimenting with new techniques of blending using scrunched up kitchen roll. As I was totally 'in the zone', I was unaware of how much pastel dust I was creating and inhaling. It was only when I finished the piece that I realised my breathing had become compromised.
I was struggling to get a good full lung of air and felt awful. I visited my doctor who listened to my chest and said that he thought it sounded pretty normal. I on the other hand felt as though my lungs were on fire! He gave me an inhaler which is normally prescribed for asthmatics and told me to use it twice a day for two weeks. He said it would dampen down any inflammation in the lung lining as that's what was probably causing the feeling of irritation and burning. Thankfully I am now fully recovered but it made me think long and hard about how to protect myself in future. I started researching the possible health issues surrounding the continuous use of pastels. As I can spend up to 8-10 hours a day using pastels I felt that I had to find a way of working safely!
I started by searching the Internet for any articles about working safely with pastel; I found this interesting article on the WetCanvas forum written by American pastel artist Sheri Ramsey ‘Working with Pastels Safely’ by Lynn Howarth who wrote: ‘Essentially, there are two fundamental characteristics of the pastel medium that make it dangerous to inhale - the small particle size of the dust and the toxicity of the pigments. Pastel dust consists of extremely fine particles of both pigments and binders. When the dust is inhaled, some particles will deposit in the upper respiratory system, where they are raised on the lung’s mucous and swallowed along with other dust. But more harmfully, a significant portion of the pastel dust particles, especially those from pigments, are small enough to get deep into the lungs air sacs ( a l v e o l i ) , where they may remain indefinitely.’ Firstly I thought about the pastel dust issue and decided on using a good quality dust mask whenever I was working with my pastels, but it was hot and uncomfortable to wear despite the claims that it was one of the most comfortable!
I also found my glasses kept steaming up with hot breath! No use really as I need glasses for close work! It's now been relegated to my husband’s man cave for future spray painting jobs! Next I thought about the toxicity issue and also wondered if it could actually penetrate my skin as I'm a bit of an avid finger blender! I tried using some nonrubber plastic gloves and found I hated those as well. On further researching I found that you can buy little finger caps to use specially for working with pastel but I decided that regular washing of hands and a good barrier cream was sufficient. I also bought some blending tools that help reduce the time spent finger blending.
Having had a good look at all the top pastel manufacturers’ products, I could see no evidence of any carcinogenic ingredients, but that's not to say there are none present! As with everything potentially harmful due care and attention to your personal safety should always be a priority. Another way of keeping your studio air clean and safe to work in would be to use an air filter. Air filters start from as little as £50 rising to about £400 for the beautifully designed Dyson.
You have to change the filters frequently so there is an on-cost, but apparently they do work pretty well. Having looked at these systems I consulted my husband who is an engineer; he studied the problem of constant dust in my studio. Despite regular cleaning and vacuuming it is still an issue. He is currently in the process of making me a custom-built system using a small Henry vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter and HEPA dust bags. It has a long hose attached to a metal tray which will be fitted to my easel. The hose will be attached to the tray, it will suck out any pastel dust into the vacuum which will be set on the lowest setting and positioned outside my studio to cut down the noise.
Keeping your studio clean and having it well ventilated will go a long way in helping to minimise pastel dust; using a wet/damp cloth over surfaces will help the dust cling to the cleaning cloth and stop it being distributed back into the air. Regular vacuuming should also be done using a dust mask as it tends to create dust in the surrounding area. Artists have been working with pastels for about 250 years but not much seems to have been written historically about the health and safety aspects of using them. As we are all much better informed and more health-aware these days, it makes sense to address these issues and try and work in as clean and safe an environment as possible. I wish you all happy and safe Pastelling!