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by Gene Patterson

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China painting Solvents:  Things You Should Know

I have read with great interest, the recent discussions about various solvents we use in china painting. As a health professional, I am naturally concerned about the health hazards associated with the solvents and mediums we use.

Having witnessed, first hand, several cases of toxic disease, I have learned great respect for these substances and have recently conducted a search of the medical literature regarding many of the solvents common to our art. Friends, I am here to tell you the only non-toxic solvent available, is distilled water and even that can kill you if used improperly. Almost every product we use in china painting is hazardous to some degree. For that matter, so is the air we breathe in our cities. But, used properly, we can avoid the toxic effects of our products and have both beautiful porcelains and good health.

 Many of us "more mature" folks have been painting for the past forty or fifty years and suffer no ill effects because we treat our materials with respect. Understanding how to do that should be lesson number one for all china painters.

 Some people are simply more sensitive to certain solvents and painting mediums, and they tend to develop headaches when exposed to those substances. Although, I suspect many "china painter headaches" are only indirectly caused by the solvents. More about that later.


When you examine the list of solvents you will see notes of their potential hazardous effects. It is my belief that when people have an understanding of how a substance harms them, they are more successful in protecting themselves against it. For that reason I am presenting a quick and simple overview of physiological toxicology. If you think you already know this stuff--read it anyway.

The human body is nicely designed to tolerate exposure to most toxic substances as long as the Level of exposure is reasonably low. In fact, the complete avoidance of toxic materials is neither possible nor desirable. For example, many of the vitamins and minerals our bodies require, are highly toxic in large quantities. The very oxygen we depend on for life, becomes poisonous in high concentrations.

Several trace elements, essential for healthy cellular metabolism, are also on the poison control list as deadly agents (e.g., selenium, chromium, copper, iodine, potassium, etc.). The point here is to recognize which solvents are highly toxic and learn how to limit your exposure to an amount that does not harm you. The sensitive balance between the various chemically transmitted signals in the brain that represent normal human behavior, can be disrupted by foreign chemicals.

Neurotoxins are those chemicals which cause the brain and its nervous system to malfunction. These toxic chemicals can "short circuit" the nervous system without killing a single cell. A large number of the solvents we use are known as aromatic hydrocarbons and listed as central nervous system (CNS) depressants. These chemicals accumulate in the fatty material of the nerve membranes and inhibit the impulse of nerve signals. To the degree that this occurs, the individual is slowed in mind and body. The symptoms can include one or more of the following: Light headedness, headache, excitement, slurred speech, lack of coordination (intoxication) nausea, visual disturbance, convulsions, difficulty breathing, respiratory paralysis, unconsciousness and coma.

For china painters, it is important to evaluate such symptoms. Most of these symptoms can also be associated with situations and conditions not associated with toxic chemicals. In fact, most physicians do not automatically think of toxins (except perhaps, alcohol intoxication), when the patient presents symptoms of central nervous system disorders. If anyone develops such symptoms following use of solvents they must tell the physician of that exposure so that he or she can order the proper lab work to identify or rule out a neurotoxin.

 In addition to the nasty work aromatic hydrocarbons do to the nervous system, they also accumulate in other fatty tissues such as bone marrow, liver and kidney. In the bone marrow the chemicals can depress the production of blood cells, causing serious anemia. The normal functions of liver and kidney are also disrupted. The chemicals are excreted very slowly from the body, plus they result in other metabolites such as phenol that further damages organs. Although the mechanism is not well understood, it is believed that chronic exposure to high Levels of organic solvents stimulates the malignant growth of certain cancers, particularly of leukemia.

 A few words are needed here to talk about headaches. The majority of headaches are brought on by tension causing strain on muscle tissues or blood vessels in the head, the neck, or both. There are two common causes for headache pain. The first is strain on facial, neck and scalp muscles usually caused by tension (tension headache). The second common cause is swelling of blood vessels in the head area that results in strain within the blood vessel walls (vascular headache).

 If you have spent several hours concentrating on getting the design and brush strokes just right, you are a perfect candidate for tension headache. Also, the vapor from many of the aromatic solvents are vaso-dilators which act to dilate (widen) blood vessels, creating a vascular headache. So, you may not actually be allergic to, or poisoned by the solvent, just over exposed to the solvent's vascular effects.

 For someone who is genuinely allergic to a solvent, or has kidney or liver disease, ventilation is critical.Those individuals should consider learning to use the non-toxic mediums and solvents such as water based mediums


Rule #1:   Adequate ventilation in your painting area is essential. Ventilation that is adequate for using turpentine is not necessarily adequate for using benzene. Some solvents vaporize into the air rapidly and your goal is to dilute those fumes with fresh clean air as quickly as possible. Otherwise, you inhale the vapor and your lungs soak up the chemicals and transfer them to your blood stream within seconds.

 My personal recommendation is that you install an exhaust fan in the area where you paint. The type fan used in bathrooms works reasonably well. Choose one rated for the right size of you room. Fans are rated according to how much air they remove. This is expressed as Cubic Feet per Minute (CFM).  Choose one with a squirrel cage type fan instead of the propeller type fan.  When using large amounts of hazardous solvents, do it out doors and limit your exposure to the concentrated vapors to short periods of time. If you work regularly with the highly toxic chemicals, invest in a fume mask rated for organic solvents and remember always to protect yourself with rubber gloves and a plastic apron. The thin latex gloves may not protect you because some solvents can diffuse through the thin latex.

When working only with turpentine, alcohol and oil mediums, a regular fan set to blow air out an open window will often be sufficient to keep the amount of solvent vapor at a safe Level. Do not depend on this arrangement to be safe when using the more hazardous solvents.

Also, keep the lids on solvent containers, removing the lid only when using it. Another safety practice is to keep a large mouth container with a tight lid, handy to drop in rags and tissues used to clean surfaces, wipe brushes or spills. These cloths and tissues provide an increased surface area for solvents to vaporize rapidly into the air. When finished painting, take the container of solvent soaked cloths outside to dry thoroughly before putting them into the trash or before washing them.

Do not wash these cloths with articles of clothing. Some of the hazardous chemicals are not soluble in water and can contaminate your clothing then enter your body through the skin.

 If you should breathe some concentrated vapors, leave the area immediately and get into fresh air. Breathe deeply to flush your lungs with clean air. Caution: don't hyperventilate and make yourself dizzy.

Don't forget that ventilation of the area where you fire your kiln is also important. The fumes released from burning off the mediums, solvents and flux vapors can be quite dangerous.

 The metals (primarily metallic oxides) which make up our china paint are bound into a frit. The grinding of the fused glass-like frit produces a fine dust which can be inhaled or ingested if the painter is not careful. We must consider all of our colors as toxic. Virtually all the metals which give color to our paints are toxic and all the flux compounds are toxic to varying degrees. The china paint colors are not only dangerous in the dry powder state, but also during the firing process.

I found a surprising number of reports in the medical literature describing an illness known as "metal fume fever". This illness results from breathing the fumes released from metals at high temperatures. The condition does not resemble an intoxication, but rather an infection. A sudden chill and rise of temperature following inhalation of the metal fumes. Many suffers of the syndrome say the actual chill is preceded by an unusual sweetish or metallic taste in the mouth, a feeling of dryness in the throat, cough, a sense of lassitude and malaise, sometimes nausea. The symptoms usually pass after several hours. Chronic exposure can produce changes in the lung, resulting in emphysema. Therefore, adequate ventilation when firing your kiln is a good practice.

Rule #2:    Avoid getting solvents on your skin. As you will note when reading characteristics of the various solvents, some are known sensitizing agents and may generate an allergic reaction in people who were not sensitive at first, to those particular chemicals. Turpentine, for example, is a known sensitizer. Not everyone develops allergies to the chemical, but many do.

 Other solvents dissolve the fats and oils in your skin, causing everything from dry scaly skin to irritation and infections. There are also solvents which are readily absorbed by the skin, allowing the chemical rapid access to your blood system where it can destroy bone marrow, depress the central nervous system and wreck havoc with liver and kidney function.

 Wear rubber gloves when working with the more dangerous solvents and when you get solvent on you skin, wash it off immediately with plenty of soap and water.

 Finally, it is a definite NO-NO to put any solvent (except water and low concentrations of grain alcohol) in your mouth. Most solvents can quickly pass through the mucous membrane to enter the blood system. Don't eat or smoke while painting and wash your hands thoroughly after painting and before putting anything in your mouth.

 Rule #3:    Faithfully observe rules #1 and #2.

 We don't need to be fearful of our solvents, but learn to respect them for what they are and what they can do. If you do not have the proper equipment and cannot use a particular solvent safely, then avoid it.


As I reviewed the medical and toxicology literature, I was surprised occasionally to discover that some chemicals were far more dangerous than I had thought. Other chemicals turned out to be much less hazardous than I had believed them to be. As mentioned earlier, various solvents can greatly enhance our ability to practice the art of china painting. It is up to us to use those chemicals with understanding and respect for what they can do for us and to us.

 The following is a listing of the more common solvents used in china painting. The list is not exhaustive because I have not been successful yet in finding the critical information about some of the solvents. When that information is available, this list will be updated to include it. As I come across new information from the medical journals, that too will be added.

When reading the dangers and symptoms of these solvents, keep in mind that they can be used if treated with respect. Don't be frightened by this information, just be instructed. If you understand it, you can use it safely. The information appearing in parentheses beside the solvent name, represents synonyms or other names by which the solvent is known.

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