Van Gogh's yellow stays - Petition banning cadmium in artist's paints finds no support
Paul Gauguin used it, so did William Turner, Vincent van Gogh, Auguste Renoir, Max Slevogt, the series could go on. Cadmium yellow in artist's paints has been used in painting since 1829, cadmium red since 1907. Artists appreciate these pigments due to their opacity and lightfastness. This ought to be stopped in Europe, demanded the Swedish Chemicals Agency KEMI and placed a petition to ban cadmium with the European Chemicals Agency in Helsinki under the REACH Regulation. Their reason being that artists wash their brushes under the tap, so if cadmium-containing pigments are used, wastewater can transport contaminants to the wastewater treatment plant and thus to sewage sludge. Across Europe, around 40% of sewage sludge is used in agriculture thus cadmium from these pigments eventually ends up in the food chain.
Dr. Franz-Georg Simon, head of BAM's Contaminant Transfer and Environmental Technologies Division, is the rapporteur in the Committee for Socio-Economic Analysis SEAC. SEAC and the Risk Assessment Committee RAC, two of ECHA's scientific committees, advise a ban according to the European Chemicals Regulation REACH.
"The heavy metal cadmium is introduced onto agricultural land in not inconsiderable quantities. In Europe, it amounts to nearly 120 tonnes per year. The largest part, more than 80 tonnes, comes from mineral fertilisers and 7.4 tonnes originate from sewage sludge. The Swedish petitioner calculates that 110 kg out of the 7.4 tonnes stem from artist's paints. This is not really a large amount: the ban would reduce cadmium intake by 0.001 millionths of a gram (µg) per day, or just 0.006% of the total cadmium intake. This is so little that both committees, RAC and SEAC, have opposed a ban on cadmium yellow as an artist's colour. In addition, it is unclear whether the benefits to human health due to less cadmium in food exceed the cost of the ban. And there are no "real" alternatives to cadmium yellow as an artist's colour," says Dr. Simon.
The petition to ban cadmium has been published on the ECHA website and anyone can comment on it by February 9, 2015. Up to now, ECHA has received 667 comments, more than ever before in other ban petition procedures under REACH. Only 17 comments support the ban petition, all others are negative. Many artists have complained that there is no adequate alternative to cadmium pigments. In addition, the petitioner's assumptions are wrong: many artists said they clean their brushes with paper and cloth towels and dispose of paint residues appropriately.
ECHA will finally decide on the ban in March 2015. The process then goes to the European Commission, which will make the final decision. In general, the EU Commission adopts the opinions of the ECHA committees.