By Daniel Grant Art schools and university art departments are where the next generation of professional artists receives its training. A number of schools in the Northeast, however, have been taking a remedial course in the disposal of toxic art materials from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. “Schools just don’t get that environmental rules apply to them,” said Peggy Bagnoli, program leader for the EPA’s College and University Initiative. “They think hazardous wastes are just what big factories produce.”
The five year-old Initiative examined hazardous waste disposal practices campus-wide at dozens of colleges and universities in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont, but what struck government inspectors most clearly was the failure of the art departments to even know which materials they worked with were hazardous. “There is a real lack of knowledge within the art departments of what is in the materials they are using and what the risks are in handling or disposing of them,” said Rich Piligian, an EPA inspector.
The EPA had assumed that the origins of most spills, leaks and improper storage of potential pollutants were the biology and chemistry departments. However, faculty in these departments were fully aware that they were working with dangerous materials, only using small amounts at any one time that fit into test tubes, whereas the art faculty often had no idea and regularly used gallon containers.
“At one school, it was an art school, a ceramics instructor assured me that there were no glazes they used that contained lead,” Piligian said. “I asked him for the Materials Safety Data Sheets for the glazes” – the manufacturer’s description of the product’s contents, including known toxic ingredients, which federal law requires art supply producers to make available to buyers – “and showed him that the glazes clearly contained lead. He just never had looked.”
One of the worst instances of environmental damage resulting from an art department was a slow, chronic leak into the Charles River of various oils from an underground storage tank at Boston University’s School of the Arts. The University was fined $253,000 by the EPA and required to spend $518,000 in clean-up and other environmental projects. The University of Rhode Island was also forced to spend approximately $800,000 in fines and clean-up for environmental contamination caused by the art and other campus departments. Brown University, the University of New Hampshire and Yale University, were also fined by the EPA for violations in their disposal practices of hazardous materials.
The EPA was concerned about both the effect of improper disposal on the water supply and the admixture of unmonitored fumes on the air quality.
Bagnoli noted that it was common practice at many school art departments for students and faculty to “dump their paints down the sink. Some of those paints contained cadmium and lead, which damage the water supply.” When a spill occurred of turpentine or some other solvent, “someone would wipe it up with a rag or a sponge but not understand that the rag or sponge was now contaminated and needed to be treated as a hazardous waste. They just put in the regular trash.” Additionally, many art materials were stored in unlabeled, open containers, and different wastes were poured into the same 50-gallon drums for disposal without any understanding of how the differing chemicals might react with each other.
“Schools are responsible for the health and safety of their students,” she said, “and they are responsible for turning out graduates who will know how to handle these materials properly.”

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