Is Cadmium Paint Toxic?

Dan Schultz
Sometimes students ask me in my workshops whether certain colors are dangerous to use.
Cadmium-based colors have been around for many years but tend to be among the most often in question. As I’ve researched this, there seems to be some misinformation regarding the toxicity of cadmium in artist paints. But I have to make it known that I’m not a health professional — I‘m just sharing what I’ve learned from my own research. So use the information from this post with your best judgment.

Dangers of Cadmium

Cadmium is found naturally in the earth’s crust but is a relatively rare metal. (Which may explain the high price tag on cadmium paint colors!) Cadmium often couples with other elements in a variety of compounds. Some of these are are extremely toxic and dissolve easily in water, making them dangerous to humans.

The label on the back of a tube of Cadmium Yellow Light oil paint from M. Graham & Co. Cadmium is also dangerous if inhaled in its dust or powder form. Some of the earliest cases of cadmium poisoning were reported in Belgium in 1858. Workers had inhaled cadmium dust as a result of polishing silver with cadmium carbonate. This kind of exposure can cause severe respiratory distress, emphysema, and even death.

The U.S. government has responded as we have learned more about these dangers. Agencies including the EPA, OSHA and the FDA have implemented regulations for air, water, soil and food in order to minimize cadmium’s impact on public health. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, foods account for more than 90 percent of human exposure to cadmium. On average, people consume about 30 micrograms of cadmium daily through a normal diet, absorbing 1 to 3 micrograms. There is currently no evidence that these trace levels pose a hazard to healthy, non-smoking adults. However, studies have shown that smokers can absorb twice that amount per day.¹

The United States is the world’s primary producer of cadmium, generating an estimated 1,100 tons of the metal per year. Artist colors account for only a small portion of the demand for this dangerous metal. About three quarters of the U.S. output is used in the production of rechargeable Nickel-Cadmium (Ni-Cad) batteries.

But what about us artists?

Pigment manufacturing became big business in the nineteenth century, not only for artists but also for industrial and printing applications. When the powerful, intense cadmium colors were developed, ranging from yellows to oranges to reds, artists eagerly added them to their palettes.²

Since then, artists have become increasingly aware of the importance of studio safety. Paint manufacturers recommended that you don’t eat, drink or smoke while painting in order to avoid ingesting potentially harmful substances from paints, solvents, etc. But what about skin or respiratory exposure? Given the dangers, should we wear gloves and masks while we paint with cadmium colors? 

We know cadmium is toxic. But is cadmium paint toxic?

When I visited the M. Graham & Co. factory in 2015, I asked specifically about the toxicity of cadmium colors. They told me that by law, paint manufacturers are allowed to make cadmium colors only a few specified days each year because of the dangers associated with dust from the dry pigment. Therefore, proper respiratory equipment is required during production to prevent inhalation.

However, during the paint-making process the pigment is fused with sulfides and coated in the particular medium’s binder (oil, acrylic, gouache or watercolor). This process renders the cadmium insoluble in water, which greatly limits absorption by the human body. The cadmium does remain fat-soluble, so it’s still possible for us to absorb it if we constantly get a lot of it on our hands or ingest it. (Once again, don’t eat it!) But I’m not typically a messy painter, so I don’t wear gloves while I paint. And cadmium paints don’t give off any dust or fumes, so there’s no need to worry about inhaling anything harmful while painting.³

When to Be Extra Careful
If you’re one of those artists who gets a lot of paint or solvent on your hands, it might be a good idea to consider gloves. And you DO need to take extra precautions if you’re sanding dry cadmium paint. Make sure you wear a NIOSH dust respirator to eliminate the chance of inhaling cadmium particles. (Or any other harmful particles or dust.) You’ll also want to avoid spray-applying the colors, since that also increases the risk of inhalation. The same advice applies if you work at all with dry cadmium or other pigments. (For example, if you like to make your own paint.)

After your painting sessions, please avoid pouring your dirty brush-cleaning water or solvent down the drain or onto the ground. This can introduce heavy metals like cadmium into the watershed, possibly creating problems downstream. It’s recommended that you soak up your dirty water / dirty solvent with paper towels then throw them away in your studio trash.

An Applicable Personal Experience

Several years ago, our cat Edgar (named after the artist Edgar Payne) leapt up onto my palette table and his paw landed in my pile of cadmium red oil paint. He immediately jumped down and proceeded to run all over the house leaving little cadmium red footprints across the beige carpet. (Guess he had a secret desire to live up to his artist name.) He took refuge under a table and began licking his paw to try to clean himself up, getting cadmium red oil paint in his mouth and all over his face at the same time. My panic began — “Ahhh, the carpet!” Then, “Ahhh, is cadmium toxic?”

After doing my best to wash the paint off of Edgar using soap and water, I called poison control. They said that the small amount of paint he ingested would likely not harm him. And sure enough, Edgar is now 13 years old and still going strong. (Although to this day he hates being held upside down on his back, possibly still traumatized by being held that way as I cleaned off the paint!) The carpet actually came clean too after my wife and I spent a couple of hours on hands and knees with a bit of carpet cleaner.

The Good News
So, is cadmium paint toxic? I would say that based on what we’ve learned above, with responsible use, cadmium colors are safe in our studios — oil, acrylic, gouache and watercolor. Even if we happen to get some on our paws. 🐾

The Facts on Cadmium,
Cadmium Yellow,
Studio Safety,
Write your awesome label here.

With responsible use, cadmium colors are safe in our studios — oil, acrylic, gouache and watercolor.

Apply Your New Knowledge