Phthalates – Tempest in a teapot?

What energetic and informative conversations we’ve started about the safety of polymer clay. Is this holiday tension or pent-up anxiety about the future of our craft? Or as Lea Hernandez describes it, "…a wave of Booga! Booga! Booga!" Nan Roche suggests that perhaps it’s a tempest in a teapot (teapots courtesy of Karyn Kozak).

Most of you have pointed out that few artists’ materials are without risks if handled improperly. Here are a few excerpts from your emails. Thanks for all the wise comments…and wisecracks.

Judy Belcher says

I also wondered, do those galleries burn lovely yankee candles to make the store smell for the holiday or maybe spritz a little victoria’s secret room spray? Yep, you guessed it, phthalate in the fragrance oils.

Lindly Haunani asks

What happened to all the people who were getting brain tumors from using portable phones?

Nan Roche weighs in

What I tell my students about phthalates is this. Any medical procedure you have involving tubing, saline or blood bags etc are delivering astonishingly high amounts of phthalates directly into your bloodstream. It is excreted in your urine and feces.

Medicine has been using plastics for delivery of vital fluids for over 60 years now. If there was any obvious toxicity from this it would have surfaced by now. Without the use of these plasticizers to soften the tubing and bags used, delivery of safe, sterile and shippable fluids for medical use would have been severely hampered.

Over the past 60 years, average life spans have increased remarkably in part because of some of these advances in medicine. I think this is a tempest in a teapot in that, short of total global catastrophe, we will never abandon this technology. It’s just too practical and important for our modern way of living.

  • reply Melanie West ,

    I bow in homage and submission to three totally amazing polymer clay artists. Or, as my teenage son would say, “touche!”. Lol!

    Oh, and a hearty “Brava!” to Karyn Kozak for some terrific cane work. I only wish her site have more to drool over.

    • reply Karen Johnson ,

      For the people who think polymer clay is using too many natural resources, what about one Nascar race? I can’t imagine the amount of fuel they use. How about jets? How about people driving SUV’s? Motor homes? What about new houses in the 3 to 4,000 sq ft. range and up?
      I agree we need to conserve our resources, but there are many place to start other than polymer clay.

      • reply Sherry Bailey ,

        I agree that polymer clay is not Very Important in the overall greening of the world.

        Still, I am planning on buying a Smart Car (assuming it will work for me) and I am trying to be MUCH more scrupulous about my recycling and all that. Global Warming is something I really believe we all helped cause and that we are all responsible to combat, and sometimes i think about the fact that polymer clay is, in fact, something I COULD live without. And it DOES add a certain amount of chemicals to the planet (and, face it, landfills — not everything I make is a keeper!) that I’m responsible for…

        • reply Barbara ,

          I love my polymer clay… nevertheless, I can’t help but believe that even the smallest effort at ‘being green’ truly does count for something. I don’t have a car, and my basic mode of transportation is my feet. I recycle. But that doesn’t give me a free pass to be ‘less than green’. .. It doesn’t make me comfortable to be a hypocrite.
          Great advances in things (plastics) come with great responsibility and great consequences.

          • reply Jim ,

            I worked with polymer as a professional artisan for nearly 15 years before recently switching mediums. I became concerned a few years ago about what I was reading on the subject. That’s not why I left the medium, but I took contact with unbaked clay far more seriously then I did in the beginning of my polymer career.

            I find much of the comments from polymer artists with their whole livelihood invested in the medium to be somewhat self-serving regarding the possible dangers of polymer. They are POSITIVE there is ABSOLUTELY NO RISK because an industry-funded body has guaranteed it. Hmmm, how many times has that type of reasoning been proven wrong? Not to mention that much of the things we are hearing about the dangers of chemicals used in plastics are very recent discoveries. To pretend that a bunch of crafters and a craft institute with an obvious conflict in the matter is the complete story and whole truth just reminds me of someone who is being close-minded. No one knows everything on the subject at present, it’s evolving.

            That said, I think polymer clay can be used safely, but I would advise treating it carefully and using a precautionary approach. When I first started playing around with Fimo, I wasn’t very careful. I left clay on my hands while I ate lunch and when I was working for hours on end the whole time my hands would be covered with clay. Since we know that polymer clay leaches its plasticizer so well onto sheets of paper, what do you think it’s doing on your skin hour after hour?

            So the precautions I took were to use latex or rubber gloves where possible. If that wasn’t possible, like when I was building a tricky cane, I would use a product called “Invisible Glove” on my hands. It’s a soap-based barrier cream that prevents substances from sticking to your skin. Then I would get up frequently and wash my hands. With the “Invisible Glove” any clay on my hands came right off immediately with no scrubbing. If I was just occasionally touching unbaked clay, I would keep handy wipes at my work table and keep wiping my hands.

            Unlike the respected polymer artists who claim certainty about this being a “teapot tempest” I don’t know if my precautions protected me or were merely paranoia. But I do know that I likely kept a lot of plasticizer that would otherwise have entered my body from doing so and I felt good about that.

            As far as polymer clay being marketed as a children’s craft toy, I’m against it. We know children, especially younger ones, are far more sensitive to environmental toxins and contaminants than adults. I’m sure Polyform and Eberhard Faber might disagree with that, but “surely not” because they derive much of their sales from kids using these products. Whenever one of my customers would tell me about their kids playing with Fimo, I would tell them to take it away from them unless they were old enough to be very careful with it.

            Don’t stop making your amazing and beautiful polymer art, folks. Just try and keep the plasticizers out of your systems as much as possible.

            • reply Cathy ,

              Before working with Polymer Clay, I worked as a lab technician. I was exposed to many chemicals, now recognized as carcinogens. So, to me, Polymer Clay is safe and I wash my hands at the end of a work session. I heartily agree with Nan Roche. Our health care has used plastic and it is perfectly safe. We would be lost without it.

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