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Epidemiologic Notes and Reports Chromium Sensitization in an Artist's Workshop

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recently evaluated a case of chromium sensitization involving an artist who had made and dyed quilts in her home studio. The artist had symptoms of mucous-membrane irritation; burning and itching of her arms, face, and hands; and edema of the face and fingers. These symptoms were associated with exposure to the cyanotype image-transfer process.

The cyanotype process, often referred to as the "blueprint" or "ferroprussiate" process, is a technique for transferring images from a photographic negative to cloth or paper. Ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide are combined with water to form a photosensitive mixture that is then painted on fabric. A photographic negative is placed over the fabric, and the area is exposed to direct sunlight for 10-30 minutes until the pattern outline turns blue on the fabric as a result of ultraviolet radiation. The color is fixed by dipping the fabric in a potassium dichromate solution, rinsing it in water, and setting it out to dry.

The artist reported that she had first used the cyanotype process in June 1978. Shortly thereafter, she noticed a tingling sensation of her hands and skin when she handled the chemicals; these symptoms became more marked each time she dyed fabric. She discontinued use of the process in the summer of 1979. The symptoms, however, recurred each time she had contact with fabrics that had been dyed using the cyanotype process or when she had other direct or indirect contact with materials used in the process. Her symptoms abated when she was away from home, provided she did not take any of the treated cloth with her. Symptoms were most severe when the fabric was being stitched by hand into a quilt and when she had extensive contact with dyed fabrics while threading needles and knotting threads.

Air, fabric, and wipe samples of the artist's work areas were collected. Analysis of the air and fabric samples indicated no detectable levels of hexavalent chromium ("chromium VI"). The analytical method used for fabric samples had a detection limit of 10 parts/million for "chromium VI." However, a highly sensitive qualitative spot test indicated contamination caused by "chromium VI" at the workbench, above the washbasin, on implements used in the process, and on treated fabrics. Reported by the Hazard Evaluations and Technical Assistance Br, Div of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations, and Field Studies, NIOSH, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: Potassium dichromate, which is used as a fixer in the cyanotype process, contains "chromium VI" in soluble form. "Chromium VI" is an irritant that has been found to cause rhinitis, nosebleed, ulcerated nasal mucosa, and perforated nasal septum (1). It is also a potent sensitizer, and allergic dermatitis with varying degrees of eczema has been reported frequently (2,3) for persons exposed to "chromium VI."

Exposure to many toxic chemicals is possible in the pursuit of arts and crafts (4-6), a popular hobby and means of making a livelihood in the United States. In this instance the artist's exposure problem was exacerbated by her lack of knowledge of toxic reactions. The instructions available to her stated that the process required use of dangerous chemicals that must be handled with care and kept out of the reach of children. The instructions also suggested that rubber gloves be worn. However, neither the instructions nor the container of potassium dichromate provided any information regarding the strong hypersensitivity reactions that might be induced by potassium dichromate. Proper labeling might have led to earlier intervention and a solution to the problem.

Finally, it is important to note that potassium ferricyanide may form cyanide gas when exposed to heat, acid, or ultraviolet light. Since some artists use carbon arcs when doing the cyanotype process indoors, care must be taken to ensure that confined work areas are properly ventilated so that any lethal hydrogen cyanide gas produced will be completely removed.


  1. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Criteria for a recommended standard...occupational exposure to chromium VI. Cincinnati, Ohio: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 1975. (DHHS publication no. (NIOSH) 76-129).

  2. Jaeger H, Pelloni E. Skin test to dichromates, positive with cement eczema. Dermatologica 1950;100:207-16.

  3. Kaaber K, Veien NK. The significance of chromate ingestion in patients allergic to chromate. Acta Derm Venereol (Stockh) 1977;57:321-3.

  4. Landrigan P, Tamblyn P, Nelson M, Kerndt P, Kronoveter K, Zack M. Lead exposure in stained glass workers. Am J Ind Med 1980;l:177-80.

  5. Carnow B. Health hazards in the arts and crafts. Chicago: Hazards in the Arts, 1976.

  6. McCann M. Health hazards manual for artists. New York: Foundation for the Community of Artists, 1978.

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