On the issue of safety when working with pigments

In private conversations, I often have to talk about the properties of coloring materials in terms of their health hazards. I sat down to write a note on this topic after a recent conversation with Ksenia Ryshchenkova, head of the Era of Art icon-painting school. It then turned to the allegedly poisonous properties of cinnabar and its detrimental effects on human health. This point of view was defended by my opponent. And this is a fairly common point of view among artists. Let me tell you right now that this point of view is wrong.

Cinnabar detractors first of all say that cinnabar is mercury, and mercury, as you know, is very harmful to humans. I will not argue with this statement. Mercury, or rather mercury vapor, is really very dangerous for humans. But only cinnabar is not just mercury, but mercury sulfide, a compound (and very stable from a chemical point of view) of sulfur and mercury. And the properties of this compound are far from the same as the properties of mercury and sulfur in a free state. These are completely different substances. To illustrate, I usually give the example of table salt, which we eat daily. The chemical formula of table salt (in nature, the mineral halite) is NaCl. Those who are a little familiar with chemistry will easily notice that table salt consists of two very toxic substances: the extremely poisonous alkali metal sodium and the strongest toxic substance chlorine. By the way, chlorine is the main component of the military poison gas mustard gas. However, the combination of sodium and chlorine is quite safe and edible. But back to cinnabar. What is the measure of danger when working with this mineral? In order for cinnabar to begin to release mercury, this mineral will need to be heated to 600 degrees. At this temperature, mercury sulfide begins to decompose and mercury passes into a vapor state. But in domestic conditions it is rather difficult to obtain such a temperature. At normal room temperature, nothing happens to cinnabar and it is absolutely harmless. The dangers of cinnabar, as well as the harmful effects of any other pigment on human health, can only be discussed in one case. Finely ground pigment, like any dust (road, house, whatever), is an allergen. Therefore, first of all, it is necessary to protect yourself from dust getting into the respiratory tract and on the mucous membrane. To do this, just work more carefully with pigments, do not dust, always rub them together with a binder and, if necessary, use simple respirators or a gauze bandage. Basic personal hygiene measures will protect you from unwanted consequences. And don't be afraid of cinnabar. After all, by and large, cinnabar, as a pigment, has practically nothing to replace in the palette, especially when it comes to icon painting. Cinnabar is not just a red pigment, cinnabar, as A.N. Ovchinnikov, is a mystical element: “... in icon painting, in the selection of pigment ratios, one can see a mystical understanding of the elements that make up the color of painting, the desire to designate with each mineral the elements of the universe - fire, water, earth and air.”

But not everything is so rosy when it comes to the safety of pigments. There are some really dangerous things. And first of all, this applies to white lead. They are indeed poisonous, and poisonous precisely in their combination as lead carbonate. Be extremely careful when working with them. Orpiment (arsenic sulfide) can also cause a sharp allergic reaction in people susceptible to this disease. When ingested orpiment acts as a very strong laxative.

In conclusion, let me repeat once again: do not dust, work more carefully, keep your workplace clean and wash your hands before eating.

A.V. Grigoriev