Harmless Hobby? Watch Out for Toxic Art Supplies

Read labels to avoid making holiday crafts with toxic art supplies.
A dad doing holiday crafts with his son should read labels to avoid the risks of toxic art supplies.

Many adults and children alike enjoy arts and crafts. Yet many art and crafts products contain chemicals, and, like all chemicals, they can cause harm. In the past 3 years, the Blue Ridge Poison Center (BRPC) received nearly 800 calls about exposure to toxic art supplies. Most cases resulted in minor or no health effects. Several, however, were more serious and required medical attention. Some examples:

  • A 3‐year old child drank the ink from a broken gel pen and began vomiting.
  • A toddler ate two 5 oz. cans of modeling dough, which put him at risk for sodium (salt) poisoning. The BRPC referred the child to an emergency health care facility for monitoring and treatment.
  • A woman complained of painful, difficult breathing after using spray paint in a poorly‐ventilated room.

Who is Most at Risk?

Preschool and elementary grade children have a high risk for exposure to toxic art supplies, because they may be tempted to taste or eat products that are brightly colored, smell good or are being stored in food and drink dishes. Young children are especially susceptible to chemical exposures because their bodies are smaller, and their nervous systems and organs are still developing.

Older children may engage in horseplay or exercise poor judgment in handling art and craft products, which can lead to accidental exposure. They may also be at risk for abusing products for the purposes of getting high or causing harm to themselves. Many paints, glues and solvents used in creating art projects are popular substances of inhalant abuse.

Other people at high risk for exposure to toxic art supplies include those with visual or hearing problems, physical disabilities, cognitive disabilities and asthma.

Protect Yourself from Toxic Art Supplies

Accurate knowledge of art materials and their potential hazards can help assure a safe studio, home and classroom. In addition to any safety information offered on product labels, you should:

  • Supervise children closely when using art materials
  • Limit exposure by providing access to the smallest amount necessary
  • Read product labels and follow their guidelines
  • Don’t eat, drink, smoke or apply makeup near art materials
  • Store all products in original, labeled containers
  • Store all products in a locked cabinet when not in use
  • Keep a tidy, well‐ventilated, well‐lit studio
  • Wash hands after handling products
  • Discard any expired or unwanted materials according to the label’s instructions

Art Materials and the Law

In 1988, Congress passed the Labeling of Hazardous Art Materials Act (LHAMA), which required manufacturers to have all products evaluated by a toxicologist to determine any potential harmful health effects. Products must be evaluated for harm from single exposures as well as from repeated, long-term exposure. According to LHAMA, if a product presents any health hazards, it may not be used by children in grade 6 or below. Also, the manufacturer must:

  • State all health risks on the label.
  • List all hazardous ingredients.
  • Provide instructions for safe use, including clean up, storage and disposal.
  • Print “not suitable for children in grade 6 and below” on the label.
  • Regardless of any potential health hazards, all labels must verify their adherence to the law with the words “Conforms to ASTM [American Society for Testing and Materials] D4236” or similar statement.

Exposure to Toxic Art Supplies?

Keep the toll free Poison Helpline number nearby. Call right away if you suspect exposure to art materials. Don’t wait for symptoms. Call 800.222.1222.

Where the Law Falls Short

Industrial Materials

Some limitations exist to the 1988 LHAMA Act. Products do not have to comply with the labeling requirements if they are not intended for sale to schools or for use by children. Arts materials outside the labeling requirements include industrial or commercial house paint, certain ceramic materials or silk screen printing inks.

Manufactured Overseas

Additionally, products manufactured in countries with less strict laws may not be properly tested or labeled. Certain brands of sidewalk chalk and crayons made in China, for instance, contain harmful amounts of lead. These items have since been recalled from U.S. stores.

Variable Circumstances

Further, the risk of injury from exposure to art and craft materials depends on many factors. Even relatively non‐toxic items could pose danger under certain conditions. Your risk of injury can be affected by:

  • Product ingredients — Example: One swallow of water‐based tempera paint may not cause any health effects, but one swallow of oil‐based artist paint may contain a dangerous amount of lead.
  • Amount or concentration — Example: Inhaling the scent of an ink marker while using it in a well-ventilated room usually causes no problems. However, concentrating the fume in a baggie and inhaling it with the intent of getting high could be deadly.
  • Frequency and duration of exposure — Example: A single, accidental taste of a brush-cleaning solvent may not cause injury, but a habit of using your mouth to form your paintbrush bristles into a point every time you dip the brush into the cleaning solution may cause health effects over time.
  • Route of exposure — Many products may be safe to spill onto your skin, but dangerous to swallow (or vice versa).

Toxic Art Supplies by Product Type

Airbrush and Spray Painting

Airborne droplets may contain toxic pigments, solvents or propellants that can remain suspended in a poorly ventilated room for hours.

Ceramics Handling

Wet clay does not pose a poisoning risk. However, powdered clay mixed with water can lead to inhaling large amounts of dust containing silica, talc or asbestos. Sanding dry, unfired pieces may also create dust.

Raw glazes may contain various metals or metal oxides (including arsenic, cadmium, copper, barium, or lead) and other compounds like solvents, silica, or soda ash, which are dangerous to swallow or breathe. Only lead-free glazes should be used by students. Lead glazes on dishes can leach lead into food or beverages. Kiln firing can produce highly toxic gases like chlorine, fluorine, sulfur dioxide, ozone, metal fumes and carbon monoxide.

Glues and Adhesives

  • Water-based adhesives such as basic craft glue, homemade flour and water pastes or animal-based glues are relatively nontoxic and the only glues recommended for young children.
  • Organic, solvent-based adhesives, including rubber cement and modeling glue may be toxic by inhalation or ingestion.
  • Adhesives that depend on chemical reactions between two compounds mixed together include epoxy glues, polyurethanes and instant glues. These may be toxic by inhalation or ingestion.
  • Spray fixative often contains solvents, notably n-hexane.

Markers, Inks

Permanent, solvent-based markers and inks may contain toluene, xylene or alcohols, and may be toxic through inhalation or through the skin, particularly in high concentrations. Water-based markers and inks, including gel pens, are generally non-toxic. However, some people are concerned that scented markers encourage children to sniff and taste art materials. Teachers should use their discretion.

Paints

Paint, water-based (acrylic, watercolor, tempera, etc.): Some pigments may contain toxic inorganic compounds of lead, cadmium, manganese, mercury, cobalt or chrome. Grinding pigments, or mixing from a powder, presents a risk of inhalation exposure. Some paints may contain trace amounts of ammonia, formaldehyde or other preservatives

Paint, oil-based: Some pigments may contain toxic, inorganic compounds of lead, cadmium, manganese, mercury, cobalt or chrome. Solvents like turpentine and mineral spirits are often required as thinners or for clean up.

Paint, commercial: Paints designed for signs, cars, houses or other industrial uses may contain lead compounds, toluene, xylene or other dangerous compounds.

Pastels: Pigments may contain compounds of lead, cadmium, mercury, manganese and chrome. Pastels create a lot of dust. The risk of inhalation exposure increases when artists blow excess dust from their artwork.

Photography

There is a wide variety of photochemicals (too numerous to mention here). Many are toxic through ingestion, skin contact or inhalation. Darkrooms should be well ventilated, and chemical baths should remain covered when not in use. Fatalities have been reported from accidental drinking of concentrated developer. Keep all photochemicals in labeled containers out of the reach of children.

Plaster Molding and Carving

Powdered mixes may create airborne dusts of calcium compounds, silica, potassium compounds, borax and vermiculite. Read the label: Some plasters are not suited for use on body parts and will burn the skin.

Printmaking (Lithography, screen printing, etc.)

Printmaking inks can be water-based, solvent-based or oil-based. All may use pigments which possibly contain toxic inorganic compounds of lead, cadmium, manganese, mercury, cobalt or chrome. Some inks may contain trace amounts of solvents, preservatives, benzene, oil of cloves (which slows drying) or other toxic compounds. Solvents are commonly used for clean-up. Some printmaking involves the use of acids, such as hydrofluoric acid, to etch an image onto the medium. Using solvent-based inks may expose users to high amounts of vapors during both the printing and the drying process.

Sculpture (Stone)

Sanding stones like sandstone, soapstone and slate can create dust that contains large amounts of silica. Some soapstone may contain asbestos.

Stained Glass

The metal used to wrap around individual pieces of glass — and the solder used to bind them together — often contains lead.

Varnishes and Lacquers

Varnishes and lacquers are made of resins dissolved in volatile solvents such as turpentine, methyl alcohol, acetone, toluene, or petroleum distillates.

 

This article on poisonous arts and crafts supplies has been repurposed from The Antidote, a newsletter of the Blue Ridge Poison Center.

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