Children need encouragement to spend some of their free time in artistic endeavors—but be on the lookout for unhealthy materials. Many paints and markers contain neurotoxic solvents like turpentine and xylene. Some artist's pastels contain inhalable asbestos, a known human carcinogen. Manufacturers, however, are not required by law to list ingredients on labels. So what should you look for?
The manufacturer-supported Art & Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) certifies a product with its AP label if it contains no ingredients found hazardous by a toxicologist. While weeding out extremely toxic, flammable or corrosive items, the AP label is not a fail-safe. ACMI does not conduct independent tests and has previously certified suspect items, such as modeling clay made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) containing diisononyl phthalate, now banned from children's toys in the United States.
Monona Rossol, an industrial hygienist and president of Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety, recommends that parents demand disclosure of ingredients for products that don't list them.
What you can do
1) Pick products marketed for children that bear the AP label and that contain no hazard warnings or precautionary statements for grade six and under. For a list of products not allowed for use in kindergarten through sixth grade in California, see oehha.org/education/art/getart.html
2) Look on the label for "Conforms to ASTM D-4236" to ensure that chronic health hazards are properly listed, as required by law.
3) Ask companies for product Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), which meet the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements for listing health hazards, or see hazard.com/msds/index.php.
4) Avoid volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and particulates, which can cause a host of health problems.
Crayons and chalk
“Organic pigments have not been studied for toxicity,” warns Rossol, adding that parents should be wary of nontoxic claims for natural or plant-based pigmented products, whether in crayons or in paints. Examine ingredients lists and choose soybean (or beeswax) crayons in preference to petroleum-based products. Although Crayola’s crayons are petroleum based, Crayola is one of the few companies to disclose the pigments in their crayons and ensure lower toxicity.
Glue Look for low-VOC options such as cellulose glue or washable glue sticks.
Paints Opting for watercolors and liquid tempera paints is the easiest way to skip the VOCs of solvent-based paints for young children. However, if you have a teenage artist who is determined to work with oil paint, make sure all colors are free of toxic metals. Look for water-soluble oils or use linseed oil, a low-VOC medium. To clean brushes, use baby oil followed by soap and water. Rossol notes that titanium white, new carbon black, ultramarine blue and green appear to be the safest colors in terms of inhalation and ingestion.
Pencils, pens and markers Pick pens and markers labeled “low odor,” leaving aside strong-smelling permanent or dry-erase markers, which release VOCs.