"Nontoxic" Labels on Art Supplies
Raise Concerns

By Sarah Henry


Experts Say Many Still Could Present Danger to Children

Labels declaring many children's art supplies "nontoxic" may provide only an illusion of safety for parents and teachers, according to a team of experts at the California Department of Health Services.

These labels, from the Art and Craft Materials Institute in Boston, have for more than 40 years reassured parents and school officials about the safety of paints, marking pens, and other art materials.

But according to California health officials, labels from the industry-sponsored institute may provide misleading and possibly dangerous information.

In a December 1987 audit of the institute's work, state researchers could find no evidence that most products certified by the group had ever been tested.  Officials also found in evaluations last year that some products contained heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury, and lead - all potentially dangerous to children's health.

"Evidence of testing was not available in any of the (product) evaluations," wrote Robert Schlag, head of the health department's Exposure Assessment Research Unit, in a March letter to the institute.  "There was no evaluation, no paper trail, no complete formulation information."

In compiling their own list in May 1987 of safe children's art supplies, state health officials rejected more than one-third of about 15,000 approved art supplies.  The action came after an initial check of art stores revealed the presence of toxic art materials in some institute-approved products.

About 25 percent of the products were reinstated in March after evaluations by state health officials showed they were  not hazardous.  But officials have refused to reinstate all products approved by the institute.


Some Materials Unsuitable

They say some art materials, such as aerosol products and oil paints, will never be reinstated because they are unsuitable for use by young children.

"We still haven't checked everything on this list but we will," Schlag said.  "I don't see us accepting their list in the very near future."

Institute officials acknowledge there have been problems with their record-keeping in the past.  The organization's consulting toxicologist, Dr. Woodall Stopford, admits that when health officials audited the program last year, "There was a lack of information and no paper trail; they should have been there."

But Stopford says state officials have misinterpreted the purpose of the institute's list, which was meant for adults as well as children, he said.

The institute argues that the concerns of state officials over children using potentially dangerous products are misplaced.  "We assume that (children) don't (use those products),"  Stopford said.  "Do you eliminate the risk of a child using a product by taking it off the list?  I don't agree with that." The institute also argues that while some institute-approved products may contain heavy metals, they are present in small enough quantities to be considered nontoxic.  "If it's not going to hurt you, then it can be labelled nontoxic," said Laurie Doyle, associate director of the institute. "The (state health department) does have a difference of opinion on that."

Since 1940, the nonprofit association has sponsored a certification program for children's art materials.  The institutes's literature says that product formulas "undergo extensive toxicological review" and "testing as deemed necessary" and that the group conducts annual random tests of approved products to make sure products continue to be represented by the institute.  Stopford said that he was forwarding test results of thousands of materials to California health officials.


Improvements in Record-keeping

In a follow-up audit of the institute's program in June, the health department's Schlag said he saw improvements in evaluations and record-keeping.  The institute "has come a long way," Schlag said.  "They have made a commitment, but they have a long way to go."

Some school officials outside California still rely on the institute's nontoxic label, as do many parents when choosing children's art materials.  Subscribers to the institutes's labeling program represent about 75 percent of the art and craft manufacturers in the United States, according to Stopford.

Exposure to toxic art products through eating, breathing, or touching can cause kidney damage, nerve damage, lung disorders, and cancer, say health experts.

Each year there are fatalities from children swallowing solvents such as paint thinner, according to Michael McCann, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Safety in the Arts in New York City.  "The solvent gets into the lungs and causes chemical pneumonia, and the child dies," McCann said.

Children in kindergarten through grade 6 are especially at risk from exposure to these hazardous substances.  Because they are small and have a tendency to put objects in their mouths, young children are more likely to receive a higher concentration of toxic substances than are adults.

In addition, high metabolism increases the rate of absorption of toxic materials by children, and their still-developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxic agents.

Despite increasing awareness about toxic chemicals and recent laws to protect workers and consumers, the exposure of children to toxic art materials is often overlooked, health officials say.


A Serious Problem

"I think people would be surprised to know that chemical exposure is a more serious problem with art and craft materials than in a chemistry lab," said Mark Veazie of the Washington State Office of Environmental Health Programs.  "I've seen unventilated kilns used in elementary school classrooms," Veazie said.  "I've seen photographic labs - kids looking at acid baths practically at eye level."

In California, a 1987 law required the state health department to provide each elementary school in the state with a list of art and craft materials unsuitable for use in schools.

But the department was reluctant to do that.  "We didn't want the burden of proof on the CDHS (California Department of Health Services) to prove that a product was hazardous.  What if we missed something?  It would imply that we felt the product was OK when we really didn't know."

Instead, in June 1987, the health department provided a list of acceptable art products to school superintendents statewide.  Struck from that list were various institute-approved products that state officials have concerns about, including airbrush and oil paints, paints with cadmium and mercury compounds, and some ceramics and glazes.


State Officials Remain Cautious

Despite recent attempts by the institute to improve its certification program, state officials remain cautious.  They have expressed concern, for example, that some products labeled by the institute as nontoxic may contain suspected carcinogens.  State health officials plan to audit the institute again later this year.

Meanwhile, health officials in a number of states, including Illinois and Washington, say they prefer to use the California school list over the institute list.  "Some just cut off our letterhead and use the list," Schlag said.

Sarah Henry is a staff writer for the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco.

(c) 1988, Center for Investigative Reporting

Art Hazard News, Volume 11, No. 8, 1988

This article was originally printed for Art Hazard News, © copyright Center for Safety in the Arts 1988. It appears on nontoxicprint courtesy of the Health in the Arts Program, University of Illinois at Chicago, who have curated a collection of these articles from their archive which are still relevant to artists today.