Let’s face it – oil paints stink. They’re beautiful and you learn to live with the smell, but you wouldn’t put it in your car if it was a hanging air freshener. Those fumes aren’t good for you, but can oil paint cause lymphoma? Well, the good news is that oil paint, acrylics, paint strippers, and other common hobby materials were part of a study I’ll link for you and shown not to be a risk for NHL or ‘Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma’. So, while your oil paints might give you headaches or even a little skin irritation, they won’t give you lymphoma.
You can see the actual study here for all of the juicy details, delivered in a clinical fashion that good science requires. That said, let’s talk a little more about the subject so that you can feel a little better about your painting if those fumes have been making you nervous.
Follow me and I’ll talk about toxicity!
What chemicals can cause lymphoma?
So, we’ve established that oil paints are not a lymphoma risk, so what exactly is? Well, while we still don’t know a lot about lymphoma, we do know a little. Some common factors that have been determined to cause Non-Hodgkins lymphoma include carcinogenic chemicals like glyphosate and polychlorinated biphenyls.
While we know that these chemicals increase the risk of Non-Hodgkins lymphoma, doctors still don’t understand it completely, but what happens with lymphoma is that a lymphocyte (a white blood cell that combats disease) develops a mutation. This mutation tells the cell to multiply faster than usual, so the mutation is quickly spread throughout the bloodstream.
These diseased cells affect areas such as the lymph nodes, bone marrow, the thymus, and the spleen. While this is a pretty basic explanation, it gives you a taste of what we know about Hodgkins and Non-Hodgkins lymphoma currently. Not a huge amount, unfortunately, but science is getting there. It’s just a matter of more studies and time.
Is oil paint cancerous?
No, oil paint probably isn’t going to give you cancer, and unless you are eating it the toxic effects are pretty limited. Oil paint on your skin might irritate it, for instance, but this is mostly the solvents that are involved as they can transfer minute amounts of chemicals into your skin. The fumes from oil paints can give you headaches and if you are in an enclosed space, you might even pass out – but it’s not common.
Eating oil paints is where things can get toxic, but this is because many of the colors are achieved by adding pigments that contain heavy metals in them. These aren’t linked to cancer that I’m aware of, but some of the more toxic colors could kill you or at least make you very, very sick.
Some of the most toxic varieties include:
- Burnt umber – Contains manganese silicates and iron oxides.
- Naples yellow – Contains lead antimonate.
- Manganese violet – Contains manganese ammonium pyrophosphate
- Cadmium red – Contains cadmium selenide or cadmium sulfide.
That just gives you an idea of the most toxic. While touted as being non-toxic, that doesn’t really include if you eat them. A lot of oil paints incorporate metals like lead, cobalt, mercury, and barium, so keep children and pets away from your paints – a ‘baby gate’ will work for dogs and children, but you might want to simply close the door if you have a cat.
Can you get cancer from paint?
Researching a little further into the subject I have found reference to a study that seems to point the finger at solvents, varnishes, and pigments (such as any containing Zinc chromide). They do seem to cite that artists are slightly more likely to get bladder cancer. You can read a little more about that here to see what you think. Basically, a study was performed on 42,000+ people such as professional painters, artist, lacquerers, and folks who work in companies that make varnishes and the like.
In these studies, prolonged exposure to paints, lacquers, and varnishes was shown to give a slightly higher chance of contracting various cancers, by working with them or in their manufacture. Women were found to be more susceptible to men and while the reason is not fully understood for this, it is believed to be related to how carcinogens are processed or stored in fat in the body. Check out the article to see what you think, but it looks like I’ll have to change my stance from ‘oil paints won’t give you cancer’ to ‘oil paints and some of the solvents and varnishes involved might well increase your chances of it.’
Okay. So, as far as oil paints and risk for cancer go, we’re down to two studies for the purposes of this article. One shows that oil paints are not a significant risk when it comes to Non-Hodgkins lymphoma, while another study shows that bladder cancer risks are raised for artists. Yikes! My advice is to check out the studies on your own, think about the artists you know who’ve been working with paints for years and are still healthy, and draw your own conclusions.
It’s a tangled web for sure, but since I’m not a doctor or a scientist I can’t really make a definitive statement on the subject – this article is just because people have asked! Before I go, I’ve got a lovely link for you that’s a fun read, as it details 7 deadly incidents where art was the culprit. You can check out the 3rd party link here and I hope you enjoy it.
In the meantime, keep your art room well ventilated and if you are really worried, simply invest in a respirator because art… well, it’s gonna happen!