Art Safety: Printmaking
Organic solvents are a class of carbon-based liquids, commonly a component of oil-based paints, printing inks, wood finishes and varnishes. Organic solvents such as laquer thinner are used in printmaking to remove ink from the plates.
Organic solvents vary widely in their properties and toxicity. They are often volatile, meaning that they evaporate quickly, giving off vapors that may be harmful if inhaled. Some volatile solvents, like ethyl ether, can have an anesthetic effect on the nervous system. Other solvents may cause long-term liver damage or may otherwise impact the internal organs or nervous system over a long period of time. Many organic solvents are also highly flammable. Their vapors can ignite easily, even at some distance from where the solvent is being used.
The printmaking process uses strong acids, like hydrochloric (muriatic) and nitric acid, to etch designs into metal plats. Corrosives may be either acids with a very low pH, or caustics (bases) with a very high pH.
Corrosive materials are hazardous because they burn, irritate or damage tissue on contact. Highly concentrated, strong corrosive materials, such as the etching solution used in printmaking, can cause severe, permanent injury to skin tissue. Concentrated corrosives also give off vapors which can damage the respiratory tissue and mucous membranes if inhaled.
Wear gloves and goggles to protect your skin and eyes when handling solvent-based products. Consult the MSDS for the solvent you're using to make sure the type of glove you choose will protect against the particular solvent being used. If the MSDS warns against an inhalation hazard, you must work with local exhaust ventilation.
Whenever possible replace highly flammable, toxic or suspect and known human carcinogenic solvents with less toxic solvents. Especially avoid the use of ethyl ether, benzene, carbon tetrachloride and chloroform.
Use concentrated corrosive materials only in well-ventilated areas. When diluting acids, add acid to the water, not the reverse. Pouring water into concentrated acid causes a violent reaction -- spattering, splashing and sudden build-up of heat. Be cautious of incompatibilities: some corrosives are oxidizers in their concentrated form (e.g. ntiric and perchloric acids) and will react strongly with organic materials (e.g. paint thinner). Also, some acids and bases may be incompatible with each other. Concentrated corrosive materials will quickly penetrate most clothing materials and injure your skin, so if you accidentally splash yourself, remove any affected clothing and rinse the skin liberally for at least 15 minutes. Make sure there is an eyewash station nearby before beginning work with corrosives. Eyewash stations are usually tagged to show the last date of inspection, but you can also check it yourself to make sure it provides clean, rust-free water.
Goggles are a must whenever working with corrosives, and corrosive-resistant gloves are advisable. If you're using highly concentrated corrosives and there is a possibility of splashing or splattering, you should use corrosive-resistant long-sleeved gloves and a face shield over your goggles. If you must work with concentrated corrosives such as fuming nitric acid, do so only under good local exhaust ventilation.
Whenever possible replace highly concentrated corrosives with more dilute solutions.