Slideshow: 6 Alternatives to Unsafe Art Supplies for Kids

Encourage your kids to do arts and crafts, but make sure the materials they use are safe.

June 10, 2009

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—When parents and grandparents hit the arts and crafts aisles this summer in search of a non-TV-related ways to entertain children, they probably aren’t thinking about the chemicals in crayons. But Monona Rossol, MS, MFA, industrial hygienist with the group Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety, takes serious issue with the secrecy about ingredients behind which art supply manufacturers hide. “Every pigment in crayons is considered a trade secret,” she says. Art supplies aren’t required to bear ingredient labels, she notes, and manufacturers don’t make it easy to find out what’s inside them. Parents can look for products that say “Conform to ASTM D-4236,” a set of international safety regulations, or the Arts & Creative Materials Institute’s “AP” (approved product) seal. However, the institute requires that manufacturers test their own products, which has made some advocacy groups question how rigorous the standards really are.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Product Safety and Improvement Act does require that art supplies marketed to children be tested for lead, but, says Rossol, parents should be able to find out what’s in a product, particularly art supplies that kids are so tempted to put in their mouths. “If it weren’t for crayons, I would have gone hungry as a child,” she says. “A parent should be able to find out what’s inside if a child eats it.”


Until the crayon barons give it up, keep an eye out for the ASTM label on products, and avoid these six other bad actors in kids’ craft boxes:

1. Adult art materials.
Problem: Many adult art supplies and paints are tinted with heavy metals like cadmium, which can upset stomachs and, with repeated exposure, cause long-term kidney damage. “Presumably, they don’t use toxic metals in children’s products,” Rossol adds.

Solution: Stick to products marketed to children (which the government defines as under age 12), she says, and with teenagers, buy high-quality art materials, which Rossol says will disclose what heavy metals (if any) are used as pigments, making it easy to take the proper precautions.

2. Powdered materials.
Problem: “Whenever you see dust, you need to be careful,” Rossol warns. Powders, whether in the form of paints, chalks, or clays, can be inhaled or wind up irritating eyes. Even if they’re labeled “nontoxic,” keep dusty art supplies away from kids.

Solution: Look for tightly bonded chalks, often labeled dust-free, but give them a blow test first; if you blow on them and see dust fly, look for another brand that doesn’t seem as dusty. Mix powdered paints without your children around, and for budding potters, keep ceramic clay wet while a child uses it, as it can dry out and get dusty.

3. Solvents.
Problem: Solvents creep into art boxes via permanent markers, crafts supplies like rubber cement, and water-soluble inks. Solvents can emit allergenic volatile compounds, such as formaldehyde and ammonia.

Solution: Use the nose test; if it smells overwhelming, look for something less pungent. And also avoid scented markers. Those artificial strawberry and raspberry odors may contain hormone-disrupting chemicals called phthalates.

4. Art materials that are sprayed.
Problem: As with dust, “if you can snort it, there’s a problem,” says Rossol. In addition to exposing kids to solvents, the pigments in sprayable art materials may contain heavy metals.

Solution: Stick with low-odor markers, crayons, and do-it-yourself finger paints. You can find hundreds of finger paint recipes online, and they contain safe ingredients like cornstarch and water.

5. Modeling clay.
Problem: Most modeling clay is made from a vinyl chloride polymer that contains phthalates to keep it moldable. Some manufacturers are removing the most harmful phthalates, but Rossol notes that they aren’t disclosing what the products do contain.

Solution: Make your own clay from equal parts of flour, salt, and water. Better yet, let the kids do it, which they’ll probably enjoy more than actually molding it into art.

6. Donated or found materials.
Problem: They may not have labels with the original safety warnings.

Solution: Unless you can guarantee what the product is and do some background research, stick with new products.
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