Carnegie Mellon University

Safety in the Arts

The Safety in the Arts program aims to identify potential hazards and to institute guidelines designed to protect Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) artists against these hazards.

Here are links for information to help you identify the hazards you might be working with and identify routes of exposures. To prevent or eliminate your exposure to hazardous chemicals at CMU, please contact with any questions.

Safety in the Arts Guidelines

The acids and alkalis used in ceramics, photochemicals, paint removers, and similar materials can be very damaging to the skin, eyes, respiratory system, and gastrointestinal system.  Strong acids, such as hydrochloric, sulfuric, and perchloric acid, require special handling as outlined in the SDS. Alkalis, such as caustic potash, caustic soda, quicklime, and lye, also require special treatment.  ALWAYS add acid to water—not water to acid—when mixing chemicals, to avoid excessive heat generation and acid spattering.
Aerosols, such as fixatives, paints, and adhesive sprays, as well as the mists produced by air brushes and spray guns, are potentially dangerous if someone inhales them. Use aerosol sprays in well ventilated areas and specifically designated and certified spray booths/fume hoods.

An inventory of laser cutters and 3D printers is kept by EHS.  Please email before you purchase this equipment.



Laser Cutter Safety Guideline

Laser-cutting devices are versatile tools used to cut or drill wood, plastics, and metals.  These devices are economical, efficient, and easily automated; however, several physical hazards are associated with these design tools. American National Standards Institute (ANSI) generally classifies laser-cutters as nonhazardous, Class 1 LASERs when operated according to manufacturer’s instructions.  Yet the enclosed lasers are generally Class 3B or 4 LASERs, which emit high levels of energy and are hazardous to the eyes and skin. Therefore, only trained personnel should perform maintenance and other procedures that involve breaching the enclosure.

Cutting or drilling certain materials, such as treated woods, plastics, or epoxy resins, may produce Laser-Generated Air Contaminants (LGACs).  These LGACs may be gaseous or particulates and may pose health risks to those exposed to them.  Examples of LGAC’s include benzene, toluene, HCl, and other airborne hazards. To control the production of LGAC’s, proper ventilation must be used to reduce or eliminate personnel exposure and to safely exhaust these by-products.  Consult EHS and your User’s Manual when determining the proper ventilation and routine maintenance schedule.

Laser-cutters also use high intensity beams of light, which can pose a fire hazard depending upon the flammability of the materials being cut. Some materials easily ignite and the flame has the potential to destroy not only the machine, but the building in which it is housed. Fire extinguisher training is required for the use of this equipment.  Check with EHS for additional information regarding fire safety and the proper fire extinguisher to have on hand.

3-D Printers 

3D Printer Safety Guideline.

While desktop 3D printers have made rapid prototyping and small-scale manufacturing easier and more accessible, they are not without their hazards. In some 3D printing processes, thermoplastics are heated, nozzle-extruded and then deposited onto a surface to build the object. As a by-product of the process, nanoparticles (ultrafine particles, or UFP’s, less than 1/10,000 of a millimeter) are emitted. For a 3D printer that uses a low-temperature polylactic acid (PLA) feedstock, 20 billion particles per minute can be released, while a higher temperature acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) feedstock can release 200 billion. Nanoparticles are of concern because they are very small and can interact with bodily systems, including the skin, lungs and nervous tissues. Exposures to nanoparticles at high concentrations have been associated with adverse health effects, including total and cardio-respiratory mortality, strokes and asthma symptoms. Since most 3D printers do not have exhaust ventilation or filtration accessories, placement of the printer and selection of printing materials must both be carefully considered. Contact EHS for a risk assessment. In additions users should complete 3D Printer Safety Training

Hazards of paints and pigments vary depending upon the ingredients and possible routes and levels of exposure.  Some ingredients may prove more hazardous than others.  Substitution of less hazardous materials should always be considered first.  Additionally, modification of the procedure can reduce exposure.  Special care must be taken to prevent aerosolization of paints and pigments, as inhalation tends to be the most hazardous exposure route.  Accidental ingestion of paints or pigment must also be prevented.  Do not eat, drink, smoke, apply cosmetics, or handle contact lenses while painting or drawing.

The table below outlines common pigments and their hazardous chemical component (See SDS for exact product specifications.):

Associated Hazards Pigment


Toxic (ingestion/inhalation), Eye/skin/lung irritant,  Suspected carcinogen, Environmental hazard

Emerald Green
Cobalt Violet


Acutely toxic (dermal), Skin/eye irritant, Carcinogen

True Naples Yellow


Suspected carcinogen and reproductive toxin, Harmful to the skin/eyes/lungs

All Cadmium Pigments


Serious skin/eye irritant

Zinc Yellow
Strontium Yellow
Chrome Yellow


Serious skin/eye irritant

Cobalt Violet
Cobalt Green
Cobalt Yellow
Cobalt Blue


Reproductive toxin, Organ damage with prolonged exposure, Environmental hazard

Falk White
Lead White
Creminitz White
Mixed White


Highly flammable and highly reactive (powder form), Skin/eye irritant, Environmental hazard

Manganese Blue
Manganese Violet
Burnt Umber
Raw Umber
Mars Brown


Corrosive, Central nervous system, liver, and kidney damage, Toxic (inhalation), Irritant and possible burns by all routes of exposure

Cadmium Vermilion Red

Photochemicals have been particularly associated with skin irritation and respiratory illnesses. The greatest hazards associated with photography include the preparation and use of concentrated chemical solutions. Only handle chemical powders or solutions with gloved hands. In addition, take care not to stir up and inhale chemical dusts.
**IMPORTANT:  Proper local exhaust ventilation and access to an eyewash is essential when working with photographic chemicals!
The following is a list of photographic agents with their most common ingredients and related hazards:
  • Developer: Often highly alkaline—common ingredients are hydroquinone and sodium sulfite; moderately to highly toxic; may cause skin irritation and allergic sensitization
  • Stop-bath: Primarily acetic acid; may cause dermatitis and skin ulceration and can severely irritate the respiratory system; contamination by developer components can increase inhalation hazards
  • Fixer: Contains sodium thiosulfate, sodium sulfite and sodium bisulfite and may also contain potassium aluminum sulfate as a hardener and boric acid as a buffer; releases sulfur dioxide gas; highly irritating to the lungs
  • Intensifier: Contains extremely hazardous components such as mercuric chloride, mercuric iodide, potassium cyanide, sodium cyanide and uranium nitrate; vapors are extremely toxic, corrosive, and can cause lung cancer over long period of exposure
  • Reducer: Contains toxic chemicals such as alkali cyanide salts and carbon tetrachloride (known/suspected carcinogens); exposure to heat, acid, or UV light produces poisonous gases
  • Toners: Contains metals such as gold, selenium, uranium, lead, cobalt, platinum or iron which replace silver on the image; highly toxic
  • Hardeners and stabilizers: Contain formaldehyde; poisonous, skin irritant, and known carcinogen

Hazards of plastics primarily exist during the formation of plastic polymers, when plastics are manipulated, and through exposure to heat, acid, etc.  Most hazards associated with making plastics come from the monomers (building blocks of polymers), solvents, fillers, catalysts, and hardeners that are commonly toxic. The hazards involved with finished plastics result mainly from the methods used to work the plastic. For example, overheating or burning plastic produces toxic gases.  Polishing, sanding, and cutting plastic produces harmful dusts.

Specific types of plastics, such as acrylics and epoxy resins, have their own sets of hazards. For example, the components in acrylic include irritants, explosives, and flammables.  The main hazard associated with acrylics is inhalation. Always maintain good ventilation when working with acrylic.

Epoxy resins used in laminating, casting, glues, and lacquer coatings are also skin irritants, sensitizers, and suspected cancer-causing agents. Avoid skin contact and inhalation.

Talk to EH&S about protective measures when working with these materials.

Pottery clay contains silicates that can be hazardous if inhaled. Many low-fire clays and slip-casting clays also contain talc, which may be contaminated with asbestos. Long-term inhalation of asbestos can cause cancer and respiratory diseases. Other toxic components, such as dioxin, barium, and metal oxides, may be added to or naturally present in pottery clays.  Proper ventilation is key when working with clay at any stage.  Working with dry clay should be avoided.

Pottery glazes also may harbor harmful pigments (see Paints and Pigments section), lead, and free silica—including flint, feldspar, and talc.

Toxic vapors, metal fumes, and gases are often produced during the firing process. Ensure that all kilns are properly ventilated. In addition, use infrared goggles or a shield to look in the kiln peephole. Proper eye protection will help prevent cataracts.

While perhaps the most widely used group of chemicals in an art studio, solvents and their associated hazards, often go overlooked.  The general definition of a solvent is a liquid substance in which other substances (liquid or solid) can be dissolved.  Solvents can be natural or synthetic and are found in a large range of products, from paints, to inks, to varnishes, to aerosol-spray adhesives, to fabric dyes, and more.  Most solvents are toxic if swallowed or inhaled in sufficient quantities. They can also cause nervous system damage, reproductive damage, liver and kidney damage, respiratory impairment, cancer, and dermatitis.

Choose solvents with high Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs), low evaporation rates, high flashpoints (temperature at which substance spontaneously ignites), and low toxicity.  For example, use ethanol or isopropanol over benzene.

Physical hazards, such as excessive noise from woodworking tools, sawdust production, risks of burns and cuts, etc., are much more notorious and well-known in a woodshop environment than the chemical hazards.  However, an ample number of chemicals are present and should be of concern.  Natural chemicals present in the wood itself, such as terpenes, phenols, and phthalic acid esters, all have exhibited negative biological effects on people exposed to these constituents.  However, chemicals used to treat woods, including fire retardants, pesticides, and preservatives, often are of the greatest concern.  These additives can range from relatively safe to highly toxic.  Preservatives, such as arsenic compounds and creosote, may cause cancer and reproductive problems.  Epoxy resins and solvent-based adhesives also pose potential hazards.  Use dust collectors around woodworking machines, ensure proper ventilation, and wear personal protective equipment, as appropriate.  Also develop a preventative maintenance schedule to empty and change the filter for these dust collectors frequently, as they could present a fire hazard if they become clogged or are not functioning properly. The maintenance schedule should correspond with hours of use, frequency of use, and materials used.  Seek help from EHS to determine risks and protection measures.