Writing and Your Health

© 1997 Sehmuel
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I'd spent a whole day on a fairly large production. I had this brilliant sensation of a burning throat, chest and stomach. I felt dizzy and sick. This is when I finally realized paint fumes were really starting to get to me.

Anyone who has ever done a piece should know afterwards, the colour of your main fill-in, reappears when you blow your nose. If you're saying "yuk.. I don't look at my snot", - let me put it to you another way. Ever painted indoors? If you have, you'll know what I mean by "spray mist". Spray cans let the paint out, and most of that paint lands on your train, wall or whatever, but the gas drifts on outwards.. until it settles. When you're painting, your lungs take in this mist, the inside of your lips and nose absorb it. (Ever seen anyone sniff cocaine?) Paint-toxins can even be absorbed through your skin. (Read anything on aromatherapy baths etc.) Now with this knowledge, think about the ground underneath your piece.. did it ever have a taint of your main colours? A cover of fine, sticky, dusty pigment? Now think about that in your body... Now buy (or rack) yourself a mask, pronto.

What Mask?

A decent mask should cover your nose and mouth. It should have at least two filters. The outside filter is called a "dust filter", and usually consists of filt, or a paper based filter, in plastic casing. The outside filter stops you inhaling the dusty particles of paint mist. The inside filter is a "gas filter", and usually consists of a coal-based substance, in a metal casing. This is the filter that stops the gas/fumes - which you may not notice as easily as the "paint dust" - yet this is the most hazardous aspect of using aerosols.

Both filters should fit in, or screw into your mask. Masks themselves are generally made of latex, plastic or rubber, and should strap on tightly enough to stop you inhaling any other way than through the filters. There is usually a simple valve on the mask itself - which allows you to exhale.

Filters will continuously "clean" air if they are left in an open space. So when your mask is not in use, keep it in a clean airtight container. (Your mothers tupperware will do ;-)

If you ever smell or taste paint through the mask, it's time to change filters. Generally - depending on how much you paint - changing once a year is advisable.

There are other, cheaper forms of masks, but these usually only stop dust/mist.. they're meant for sawdust.. not toxic fumes... by all means they're better than nothing - but not good enough.


Before and after you paint, make sure you eat and drink (preferably water). This should make your body less absorbent to the paint's toxins. Never clean your spray can tips by blowing through them, (this will invariably cover your lips in paint), do it as it says on the can, hold upside down, and spray until only gas comes out.

In my case, I think I might of realized just in time. I'd never suffered from asthma before. Now, when I run to catch a train or whatever, I'll quite often end up wheezing and puffing badly.

The following extract is quoted from Upski's book "Bomb The Suburbs". If I haven't influenced you, hopefully this will:


"We used to have a joke that spray paint was fucking up our memories. A few weeks ago, Mario called me with a new joke. When we were 13 and 14, we painted dozens of walls together, traded girls, fought gangbangers, battled other crews, and talked on the phone almost every day. For a while, Mario was my best friend. After we stopped hanging out, he got even deeper into painting. He painted with different partners every week, traded photos around the world, and filled his life with graffiti. Even the great Trixter had said he was a graffiti head.

We used to have a joke that spray paint was fucking up our memories. A few weeks ago, Mario called me with a new joke. "It wasn't the memory, it was the bladder," he said. "About a year ago I started noticing I had to use the washroom more often. Before I learned to control it, I would urinate in bed even. It kept getting worse. Now, I can't drink anything for two hours before I go to bed. I pee once before bed, then I have to get up again twice during the night"

The neurotoxins in spray paint have damaged the part of Mario's brain which produces hormones to control his bladder. The label on any spray can will tell you it can also damage the immune and nervous system, kidney, liver and lungs - the same is true for a lot of markers.

Anyone who's gone piecing has felt the slight dizziness, and loss of appetite. Some of us get headaches and nausea. I personally get muscle spasms and my hair is starting to go (one of four writers I know who're early balding). In the long run, who knows? Spray paint could be our Asbestos, our AIDS.

Coincidentally, I have a second friend named Mario. This Mario lives on the West Side, and he's at least as much of a graffiti head as the first Mario. He paints at least as much as the first Mario, and has at least as many problems. "All my life, I never used to pick my nose," he told me recently. "Then in 1988, I started having to pick my nose all the time, getting paint-colored snot, scratchy throat, wheezing. Then one time, I did this real big production and I coughed up blood. After that I lost my voice for like a week. Dude, I was scared. I didn't want anybody to know. The doctor told me don't spray paint no more. I kept doing it, and my symptoms kept getting worse. I stutter... I get a tightness in my eye, twitches in my wrist... Dude, I get major, major headaches... The worst part is, I feel like I'm getting stupider; I can't articulate myself as well as I used to be able to... I think I'm addicted to doing graffiti, I fiend for it. Graffiti is my life. I feel like I might have to die for it."

I have to admit, death by graffiti sounds like an honorable way to go out. I dream of it myself. But isn't that giving up at the game, copping out at the challenge of life: the challenge to be stronger, smarter, healthier, better than we thought we could be. The challenge to survive.

Mario, I don't want to visit you in the hospital or at the cemetery, and I don't want you to visit me there. Sometime in life, I too may have to cough up blood, lose my hair, or to lose my mind because of the painting I've done. But I ain't going out like no sucker.

When I use spray paint, I do everything to dilute the toxins and keep them out of my body. I eat before and after painting, use the wind to avoid inhaling fumes, steer clear of other toxins, refuse to paint indoors, and refuse to go out unless I really care about the piece. Most of all, I wear gloves and a mask, changing the filters regularly. I'm wearing that fucker right now. Please wear your mask too, Mario. Both of you. that shit ain't funny no more."

Taken from "Bomb The Suburbs - revised second edition", by William Upski Wimsatt, published by The Subway And Elevated Press Company. 1994. ISBN:0-964-38550-3. The book costs about $8, and can be ordered from: Softskull Press. While you're there, get Upski's No More Prisons, which is one of the most inspiring books you'll ever read. Read the first 4 chapters online there.

More tips thanks to geargirl: Drink milk before and after [we're not sure, but we think it might help restore your Ph balance]. Wear eye protection if you can, especially when working indoors, because professional spray painters sometimes suffer permanent eye damage. Also, if your back hurts, it could be kidneys that are overworked processing toxins. [Drink lots of water before, during, and after painting, to help them out.]

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