If life were fair, taking time out to indulge your creative side through art would be a naturally green endeavor. You could paint a mural, mosaic a table, or take your children to a pottery shop without a single worry.
But this is the real world, and in it, paints, glues, glazes, and even markers can pose hidden health hazards that we should be aware of. Exposure to the toxic chemicals found in some art supplies can result in problems including headaches; nausea; burns; breathing problems; lung and kidney damage; and even cancer, says Healthy Child Healthy World.
Children are particularly vulnerable to chemicals because of their small size, higher metabolisms, and immature immune systems, so it pays to exercise extra care with the products they use.
The good news (and yes, there is some!) is that it’s easier than ever to find greener, safer alternatives to hazardous art supplies.
Labels to Look For (and to Look Out For)
All art supplies sold in the US must bear the phrase, “conforms to ASTM D 4236,” confirming that they have been properly labeled for chronic health hazards, in accordance with the federal Labeling Hazardous Art Materials Act (LHAMA). Under LHAMA, art supplies must contain warnings if they cause acute hazards—such as “harmful or fatal if swallowed” or “may cause skin irritation”—as well as warnings if they could cause chronic health effects, such as cancer, sterility, blindness, birth defects, or allergic reactions.
However, LHAMA does not mandate that manufacturers provide consumers with an ingredients list, so the substances in many art supplies are often kept from consumers. Toxicologists from the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) evaluates all US art products for compliance with LHAMA at least every five years and whenever a product’s formula is changed.
To go even further when it comes to art materials and safety, also look for labels from the Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI). ACMI is a nonprofit membership organization made up of art supply manufacturers, who voluntarily agree to have their materials evaluated by independent toxicologists and tested by accredited, independent labs for safety every five years, as well as randomly and whenever product formulas change.
“Our lead toxicologist, Dr. Woodhall Stopford of Duke University, evaluates every color formulation of every product, and he must approve every formula change,” says Deborah Fanning, ACMI’s executive vice president. “He looks at everything as though it were going to be used by a one-year-old.”
Any art material evaluated by ACMI will bear one of the organization’s seals. The AP (approved product) label appears on all supplies evaluated as nontoxic to both children and adults. Some older products may have a CP (certified product) or “nontoxic” HL (health label) seal instead of an AP label.
The Perils of Paint
If a product contains potentially harmful ingredients, ACMI will mandate a CL label (caution label). No material with these labels is appropriate for children.
Fanning says that ACMI’s evaluations prohibit AP-labeled products from containing chemicals at or above California’s Proposition 65 level. Prop. 65 is widely considered one of the most exhaustive and complete lists of known chemicals known to be carcinogens and/or cause reproductive harm. AP-labeled products also avoid toxic levels of known or potentially harmful chemicals as classified by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Institute of Health, and other agencies.
One thing to note is that the AP and CP labels do not indicate that a product is completely free of toxicants—rather, that it contains no chemicals “in sufficient quantities to be toxic or injurious to humans.”
As an example of how that might pose a problem to the most cautious of us, Healthy Child Healthy World states that though polymer clays are labeled nontoxic by ACMI, they are made of polyvinyl chlorides (PVC) softened with phthalates. Phthalates have been linked to reproductive and organ damage, and manufacturing or burning PVC creates dioxin, a potent carcinogen. ACMI continues to label polymer clays with the AP label, says Fanning, because “the amount of phthalates in them is too small to cause harm, and the clays would not be expected to release hazardous materials unless burned.” Healthy Child Healthy World counters that children are subject to multiple exposures of phthalates from different sources every day, and no one knows what the cumulative effect of such exposure is.
“No label can be a perfect guarantee that an art product contains no toxins* of any kind,” says Fanning. “But our approach is very conservative.”
Want to be extra cautious? Here's our advice:
The primary toxicant in certain art supplies are chemical solvents, which are substances that can dissolve other substances to create a solution. In paints, solvents—including methyl alcohol, which can cause blindness if swallowed, and toluene, linked to kidney and liver damage—dissolve pigments and allow paint to spread evenly. Also, some pigments in art paints can contain highly toxic metals such as cadmium, arsenic, and lead, says the Washington Toxics Coalition.
“Paints in the ACMI program, even oil paints, very rarely contain solvents,” says Fanning. “Solvents may be contained in sprays and fixatives, some permanent markers, mediums and varnishes, silkscreen inks, etching grounds, rubber cement and some other adhesives, enamels and lacquers, and turpentines.”
What to do: Though the base formulas of water-based paints do not contain solvents and are therefore safer than those of oil paints, Fanning says it’s the pigments in any type of paint that can be the most problematic. Look for the AP seal on any color of paint you buy, even watercolors.
If you use oil-based paints, make sure you use AP-certified oil paint thinners and brush cleaners.
Children should only use water-based AP-certified children’s paint.
Crayon and Marker Madness
There are three types of markers: water-based, alcohol-based, and aromatic solvent-based. Aromatic solvent-based markers are the most toxic—many contain xylene, a neuro-, kidney-, reproductive-, and respiratory toxicant, says the Washington Toxics Coalition. Alcohol-based markers contain toxins, but they’re not as potent as xylene, says the Coalition.
As for crayons, they no longer contain talc and are made from beeswax or paraffin. ACMI mandates that all children’s crayons under its watch be AP nontoxic.
What to do: Avoid alcohol- and solvent-based markers, both of which are often marked “permanent” or “waterproof.” Look for water-based markers with an AP label. If you need dry-erase markers for white boards, look for those marked “low-odor,” which are alcohol-based and less toxic than other kinds.
Potential hazards abound in a potter’s studio. According to the EPA, certain ceramic glazes contain toxic heavy metals such as cadmium, chromium, and lead. Firing glazes in a kiln can further release harmful fumes into the air, says the EPA. In addition, the clay itself contains silica dust, a respiratory danger. As for popular children’s clay, be cautious with polymer “modeling” clay, for the reasons stated in the “Labels to Look For” section.
What to do: If you have a home kiln, make sure it’s properly ventilated outside. Working with wet clay minimizes the silica you may breathe in. Also, clean up with wet mops and rags to avoid spreading dust.
Keep children out of a pottery studio with an on-site kiln, and make sure they work only with wet clay to limit silica exposure. Check the labels of any glazes for an AP seal. When choosing play clays, stick with Play-doh types that dry when exposed to air, or make your own.
Many readers may remember using model glues and rubber cement as children—which are two of the most toxic kinds of glues available. Rubber cement is especially dangerous, as it contains hexane or heptane, potent neurotoxins.
What to do: That elementary school standby, white Elmer’s glue, is much less toxic than other kinds of glue. Yellow wood glue, white library paste, and mucilage glue are also good choices.
Here’s what else you need to know to get the best possible art supplies for your family and the earth.
- Look for labels that state: renewable materials, natural dyes, recycled content and packaging, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, and no to low volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
- Look for the AP or CP seal.
- When possible, avoid products with a warning label of any kind.
- To find out which chemicals are in a given product, check its Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), which lists ingredients and potential health hazards, and can be obtained from the manufacturer.
- By law, US schools cannot give art supplies with any hazard warning to K-6 school children. California provides a list of prohibited art supplies.
- To find nontoxic and green alternatives to common art supplies, or recipes for making your own, see the resources box below.
*After publishing this article it came to our attention that toxin refers to naturally occurring poisons such as snake venom or poison ivy oils. We've replaced the word toxin in this article with "toxicant," where possible, but did not alter this quote. Toxicant means manmade toxic chemical or poison, such as pesticide or solvents.