New Great Lakes Leadership & Toxins in Art Supplies

  • Larry Stephens became a professional artist when he was laid off from his auto job two years ago. He's been doing well, even selling paintings to ABC for the TV show Detroit 187. (Photo by Suzy Vuljevic)

Governor Rick Snyder picked outgoing Republican state Senator Patty Birkholtz to lead the Office of the Great Lakes. As you might guess, the director of this office oversees all things Great Lakes. Birkholtz will advise the governor and make policy recommendations on everything from Asian carp to water use.

She says her top priority will be to keep new invasive species out of the Lakes.

Birkholtz says protecting the Great Lakes will lead to a stronger economy.

“When we have a healthy Great Lakes system we have more jobs here in this state as well as regionally, and if we don’t have a healthy Great Lakes system it’s a detriment to not only the jobs situation but also businesses locating here.”

Birkholtz says she’ll go to Washington next month to urge Congress to allocate more money for Great Lakes cleanup projects.


This is the Environment Report.

People talk about suffering for their art… but for visual artists, there may be more truth to that statement than they realize. As Tanya Ott reports, many art supplies contain lead and other potentially dangerous compounds:

(sound of rattling a spray can… then spraying)

Larry Stephens shakes a can of spray paint, then starts applying it to a canvas. First the dark, grassy green. Then a lighter shade.

(newspaper crumbling)

Stephens started painted professionally – under the name Sinister – when he was laid off from an automotive job two years ago. And he’s doing pretty well. He’s even sold some paintings to ABC television for its Detroit 187 series.

Most of the time Stephens paints outside. But in winter, he can’t. So he paints indoors, wearing a respirator or a dust mask. It’s not enough.

“You know within a couple of hours I’ll start getting dizzy. You’ll end up coughing up paint the next morning. You’ll go to blow your nose and it’ll be green and red and yellow and whatever colors you’re using that day.”

Tips from the state of California for safer use of art supplies

Art Safety Guide from Princeton University

Art & Creative Materials Institute


Stephens says for a year his arms and hands were paper white from using thinner to wash off paint. But he’s willing to sacrifice to make art.

“It’s in my blood and it’s what I gotta do.”

In his blood is right! Experts say there are no large scale health studies of people who use art supplies. But Dr. Steven Marcus – who is New Jersey’s poison control chief – says lead, arsenic and cadmium are found in some paint pigments. Stone carving can release asbestos into the air and cause lung disease. And some glues and cements contain chemicals that can cause neurological damage – including a condition called “wrist drop,” where sufferers actually lose strength in their hands.

“And for an artist, that’s their bread and butter. They lose strength in their hands and they can’t be an artist.”

Most art supplies come with warnings – like using proper ventilation – but Marcus says they don’t really define “proper.” And then consider that some artists live and work in the same building…

“You know you can’t wear the respirator 24-7.”

(sound of studio)

Back in his cramped home studio, Larry Stephens knows this too well. About a year ago he had gall bladder surgery. Doctors did a full body scan and found a spot on his lung.

“They said it could be cancer or it could be old scar tissue from pneumonia when I was a kid. And to be honest with you, I don’t even want to know.”

He hasn’t had any follow-up testing. He says can’t afford the 700-dollars a month for health insurance.

“Just not in the cards right now. I’m not going to go in debt for a spot on my lung that could be something or it might not be.”

In the meantime, the U.S. Senate is working on legislation to update the decades-old Toxic Substances Control Act. That might help professional artists and hobbyists get a better picture of the true dangers they could face.

For the Environment Report, I’m Tanya Ott.