Published FCAA March 2017
Author: Ken Mullen
There are many dangerous hobbies. Ice climbing comes to mind. Perhaps motorcycle racing, deep sea diving, or BASE jumping from a cliff in one of those flying-squirrel suits. These are hobbies for thrill-seekers, and risk of harm comes with the territory. The less adventurous among us may prefer a safer hobby. Like drawing with chalk.
I suspect that most people would not consider chalking to be a pastime that carries much inherent risk of harm. Creaking knees and missing fingerprints perhaps, but nothing serious. Recently however, a friend of mine and fellow chalker found out that he had developed a rare form of cancer in his nose. There was no direct correlation between chalking and his diagnosis, but being a long-time chalker, he asked his doctor whether there could be a connection. The answer was yes.
The chalks that are usually employed for the purpose of decorating sidewalks and streets are standard soft pastels. These “chalks” are made from dry pigments that are held together with a binder. Not all of these pigments are toxic, but many do contain inorganic materials such as metals which can be harmful. Dry pigments, such as the ones used in soft pastels, can be especially hazardous because of how easily they are inhaled and ingested. Blowing excess dust from a chalk drawing is a major source of inhalation. As most chalk artists know, it is not unusual to find remnants of chalk dust when you blow your nose, even a day or two after a chalking event — a clear indication of chalk dust inhalation.
“But chalking is my happy place!,” you say. And what is to become of those boring city streets without all of that spectacular color?
Fortunately, no one is suggesting that you retreat to a safer hobby like bull running. Armed with a few tips, and a little safety awareness, you can continue creating ephemeral masterpieces for years to come.
Here are a few suggestions to help you chalk safely:
1. Less is more. This is perhaps the most obvious way to minimize inhalation of chalk dust. When you grind through a half stick of chalk to draw that 3-inch nose, not only are you creating a muddy brown pile of chalk soup, but you are also creating a mini-mountain of potentially harmful dry pigment particles. If you learn to exercise thrift in your use of chalk, not only will you chalk safer, but your pictures will also hold their color and detail better, and that’s a win-win in my book.
2. Spray your work. You may have seen some artists spray water on their chalk. Crazy right? Water is the bane of chalk pictures everywhere. Yet, a small misting bottle, used conservatively, can help to lock that chalk to the surface, and help prevent it from blowing around quite so readily.
3. DON’T BLOW!!! Probably the biggest culprit in the battle against airborne chalk particles is the artist’s tendency to blow chalk from their work area. Not only does this blow all that chalk across your painting, dulling colors and details in general, but it also creates a potentially toxic dust cloud that wends its way into eyes, mouths, noses, or anywhere else it may land.
4. Wear a dust mask. This may be the least popular suggestion, but it is likely also the smartest. Dust masks are specially designed to filter out even the smallest of airborne particles. With the current air pollution problems in many large cities, some companies have even begun making masks that border on fashionable. Check out the Totobobo mask (http://totobobo.com/), which is popular among pastel artists. Or, for that more fashionable aesthetic, perhaps look into the Vogmask high filtration dust mask (https://www.vogmask.com/).
With these tips, and a general awareness of safety regarding chalk dust inhalation, there is little reason why you can’t enjoy your favorite hobby for years to come. So get out there and sling some chalk.
I’ll see you on the pavement!
Chalk Artist, LakeWorth, FL
Website: The Chalk Guys