Back in the early 1980s I was diagnosed with a strange and dubious condition referred to as environmental illness. Proponents described it as being allergic to the 20th century and blamed it on pollution, pesticides and modern chemicals. Mainstream medicine said it was all psychological and that the patients were paranoid and mentally disturbed.
For me it started with sensitivity to pesticides and petrochemicals like diesel and gasoline. Soon I was reacting to fragrances in laundry products, perfumes and cleaning solutions. I could be feeling fine, but just walking past the detergents and fabric softeners at the grocery store would make me dizzy and nauseous. I would have to leave the area immediately and get fresh air. Eventually any exposure would leave me exhausted for days.
Back then many people went to specialty clinics, but their treatment centered around avoidance of all the “triggers” for their symptoms and most of us ended up being very isolated. Just a simple get-together with friends could become a nightmare…the charcoal lighting fluid for a barbeque, candles on a dining table or a freshly painted room could send me into a tailspin. Over the years I learned what foods and chemicals to avoid and basically tried to dodge all the exposures that would make me ill for days.
In the past several years much has changed regarding the understanding of this condition which is now usually referred to as MCS, or multiple chemical sensitivities. In my case it turned out to be caused by mutations in genes that code enzymes which break down various chemicals. I was unable to process things like benzenes, formaldehyde, alcohols, vinyl chloride and many other compounds. There’s really nothing I can to do cure it and a small exposure which would not bother a normal person can become toxic to me very quickly.
When I decided I wanted to pursue painting more seriously (I started with watercolor pencils) I ran into all kinds of issues with art supplies. Everything from paper treated with mildewcides to paint preservatives that I could not tolerate almost discouraged me from going ahead with my plans. Acrylics and oils were totally out for me…even the newer water miscible oil paints caused reactions.
I finally found two brands of watercolor paints I could tolerate, M. Graham and Daniel Smith. Both companies are very environmentally conscious. I don’t buy any paints containing cadmium or cobalt since they are toxic, but so far I haven’t had problems with any of the other pigments. Unfortunately Winsor & Newton adds something as a preservative to their paints that makes me ill. I can’t even use a dot of their paint without reacting.
For papers I settled on Fabriano Artistico. Arches treats theirs to prevent mildew and as soon as it got wet, I was in trouble. Some watercolor artists use boards (instead of paper) that are especially made for watermedia. However I can’t tolerate whatever the wood is treated with. Once I brought home a small sample and it made me so sick I had to put it outside! There is one other surface I can handle and that is Yupo, but it’s a totally different technique than traditional watercolor.
If you’re reading this and have MCS, I feel for you. It’s like walking a tightrope every day just to avoid all the things that can potentially make you sick. But don’t give up if your dream is to become an artist. Please email me if you need information on particular products or manufacturers.