YES! But How? :: Non-toxic Art

If you're looking for practical ways to live sustainably, just ask us.


I am an artist who would like to use safer, earth-friendly paint. Help!

Exciting new non-toxic paints and solvents are emerging, including soy-based solvents, oil paint sticks, and earth paints updated from ancient formulas used by indigenous people. Some states are also updating their consumer product safety laws to offer more health safety information to the consumer.

Ancient painters mixed pigment and beeswax. Hand molded oil paint sticks of pigment and beeswax dry in 24 hours, are free of turpentine, processed oils, or toxic chemicals, and are great for the mobile artist.

Artists have often turned to water-based acrylic paints thinking of them as less toxic than oil paints. The Washington Toxics Coalition warns against children using acrylic paints because they can contain ammonia and formaldehyde.

The ochres—sienna and umber, along with red and yellow ochre—pigments used by artists since antiquity, have been considered among the safest of traditional pigments. Yet danger lurks with the manganese carbonate they contain, a serious health risk when inhaled. As with all powdered pigments, wear a mask to avoid inhalation when mixing dry ochres.

Lead carbonate, chromium, cobalt arsenate, mercury, cadmium, all sometimes found in artists’ paints, are especially dangerous. Artists are advised to wear vinyl or other gloves to protect against skin contact and absorption.

California’s art materials labeling law, Proposition 65, is becoming a new standard for labeling artist’s paints. Labels must carry a warning phrase when ingredients are “known to the state of California” to be carcinogens or carry other health dangers.

Type “MSDS” plus any paint ingredient into an online search engine to get safety information from a Material Safety Data Sheet.

—Christiane Ranc


I heard a U.S. congresswoman wants to stop the phase-out of incandescent light bulbs. What’s up with that? Should I be concerned about the safety of fluorescent bulbs?

Energy savings of 75 percent and a significantly longer lifespan make compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) an increasingly popular alternative to incandescents. However, concerns have surfaced over health risks related to mercury in CFLs. They do contain mercury—about 5 milligrams, or

1 percent of the amount found in old thermometers. Intact CFLs pose no environmental or health risk. Even if a bulb gets broken, there is no cause for great alarm.

Forty percent of U.S. mercury emissions come from burning coal, much of it to generate electricity. The continued use of incandescents means significantly more mercury is released as a result of coal burning. A study by the Earth Policy Institute found that a nationwide switch to CFLs could make 80 coal-fired power plants unnecessary. More than 1 billion bulbs (3.85 per person) would have to be broken each year to equal the emissions from those plants.

When a CFL burns out recycle it, don’t put it in the trash—some local laws actually ban putting CFLs in the trash. You can go to and search for “mercury-containing lightbulbs” “where you live” to find state-by-state information on keeping your CFL, and its mercury, out of the standard waste stream.

If a bulb breaks, the EPA recommends these simple precautions to avoid possible exposure to mercury: First, get all people and pets out of the room, open a window and let the room air out for 15 minutes. Then, collect the pieces of the bulb and put them in a plastic bag or glass jar, dispose of them in the same manner as an intact bulb, and wash your hands. The next few times you vacuum, leave a window open and turn the heating/AC off to avoid any potential exposure. Finally, go buy another CFL and use what you save on your energy bill to buy a subscription to YES! for a friend.

—Noah Grant


I read in your Spring issue about reusing plastic produce bags. What about Ziploc bags? I can’t find a recycling number on the box. We reuse these sandwich bags over and over! Thanks, Ruth

Ziploc and similar bags are made of low-density polyethylene, recycling number 4. So they’re in the “safer” classification, with the cautions mentioned in Issue 45.

As an alternative to using and reusing plastic of any kind, consider the increasingly popular cellulose option—a return to technology that made its debut in 1908. Cellulose bags and wrap are made of plant fiber, so they’re at least potentially renewable. They’re particularly good for storing fresh vegetables and fruits because they breathe. You won’t be able to reuse them as many times as plastic, but that’s not all bad. They biodegrade fairly quickly, as opposed to the plastic that will be in our landfills and oceans pretty much forever.

—Christiane Ranc


So, you’ve made the “green” energy-efficiency improvements to your home. Windows and doors are tightly sealed, and extra insulation keeps you in a comfy cocoon. But less drafty airflow can mean stale air at best, and toxic air at worst. Here’s a “green” solution: houseplants.

Years ago, NASA scientists demonstrated that certain plants break apart the chemicals most commonly released by plastics, paints, synthetic carpets, and cleaning supplies.

Why are they such efficient air purifiers?

Most houseplants evolved in subtropical forests, where they received light filtered through the branches of taller trees. Because of this, their leaf composition allows them to photosynthesize under relatively low light conditions, which allows them to process gases efficiently. Soil and roots also play a role. Microorganisms in the soil become more adept at using these materials as a food source as they are exposed to them for longer periods of time. Their effectiveness is increased if lower leaves that cover the soil surface are removed so there is as much soil contact with the air as possible.

It takes about 16 houseplants in 6- to 8-inch diameter containers to improve air quality in a 1,800 square foot house. Some non-poisonous standouts from the NASA study: spider plant, golden pothos, peace lily, chinese evergreen, ficus, gerbera daisy, and rubber plant.

Various species were tested with trichloroethylene, used in dry cleaning, paints, lacquers, and adhesives; benzene, solvent in gasoline, paints, dyes, plastics, and foams; and formaldehyde, more common and more toxic, used in particle board, office furniture, household cleaners, fire retardants, and carpets.

This is how much of the contaminants were removed by plants from a sealed room in 24 hours:

Dracaena Massangeana spacer
Dracaena Deremensis spacer
Ficus Benjamina spacer
Peace Lily spacer
Golden Pothos spacer
Chrysanthemum spacer


Send your questions to editors [at] or to YES! But How?, 284 Madrona Way NE, Suite 116, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110

Noah Grant and Christiane Ranc wrote this YES! But How? as part of A Just Foreign Policy, the Summer 2008 issue of YES! Magazine.

Noah Grant graduated from college in December and is in the process of figuring out what he wants to be when he grows up. Christiane Ranc was born in Lancaster County, PA, received a BS at Penn State University, and has worked as a freelance photojournalist in North Dakota and central New York.

Send questions to editors [at] or to YES! But How?, 284 Madrona Way NE, Suite 116, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110

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