Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Toxins in Art Classes

Earlier in this blog, we talked about some potential toxins found in school buildings. There are additional toxins that students are exposed to within those schools, besides the toxins in the buildings themselves. The most obvious toxin exposure occurs during science labs, such as chemistry, but you might be surprised to learn that art classes can also be a source of toxins.

Photography is a popular class. Photography majors take it, other art students take it, and even non-art-majors often take introductory photo classes as fun electives. Darkroom photography is especially fun because you get to learn very hands-on techniques and learn about the history of photography. But some of the chemicals required to process film and develop photographs are known to be toxic.


  • Black & white developer is somewhat toxic and causes irritation of the skin and respiratory tract.
  • Color developer is especially toxic, and can harm your nervous system if absorbed across the skin.
  • Stop bath, the solution that stops the developer from over-developing, is also very toxic.
  • Multiple chemicals can create allergies or worsen already existing allergies.
  • Toners can release toxic hydrogen sulfide if they are mixed with acids. Where might these acids come from in a photo classroom? From the stop bath and fixer that you use a few steps prior to toner. The long water bath that comes between these steps is important because it prevents the mixing of stop bath, fixer, and toners.
What can you do to stay safe while still enjoying making photographs?

Pay attention to the safety rules. Read all safety information provided in the syllabus, look at warning labels in the classroom, and listen to your professor's and TA's instructions. Don't place your bare hand into the chemicals to retrieve your photograph. Use the tongs instead, or wear gloves if you dislike using tongs. Don't rush the water baths, even though they can seem very long. Never mix chemicals that you have not been instructed to mix. You don't want to create an unintended science experiment by mixing chemicals on your photograph or film.

For a fun, non-toxic alternative to darkroom chemicals, try developing your film at home using non-toxic methods. The Frugal Photographer has a recipe and instructions on how to process film using instant coffee, vitamin C, washing soda, and water.

To be even more green, try reusing a coffee tin, a light-proof box, or a large can to make your own pinhole camera. You can get a surprisingly clear image this way. You can choose to not fully light-proof your camera, and get some interesting, unpredictable effects that would be well paired with a DIY developer. Or you can fully light-proof it, using electrical tape to cover any light leaks.



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