Sunday, January 28, 2018

Are 'Non-Toxic' Children's Art Supplies Really Non-Toxic?

My kids are obsessed with art.    They paint non stop in their preschool and my youngest comes home completely covered in paint on most days.

Art is a wonderful way for kids to explore and express themselves-  for older kids and adults it can be a great stress and anxiety reliever.   Art makes most people happy- so much so that I actively look for options for  my older son to continue with his artistic expression outside of school since, sadly, his school does not offer too much of a chance to do this.

Parents ask me constantly:  how safe are art supplies? Are paints labeled as ‘non-toxic’ truly non-toxic?   

The answer:   maybe, but not necessarily.  

Many art supplies can legally - and often do- contain harmful chemicals including: Formaldehyde, ammonia, acetone, odor masking agents, lead, arsenic, cadmium, heavy metals, methyl acetate, chemical residuals and phthalates.  Art supplies intended for professional use are most often the ones with the most harmful ingredients, but ‘student use’ art supplies can too.  Unfortunately, ’Non-Toxic’ labelling on art supplies adheres to absolutely no government regulations.  Adding to the confusion, you can actually have a product that a company has had tested for heavy metals and is labelled as being ‘non-toxic’ but it can still contain a harmful amount of VOC’s - which are usually not tested for and which can continue to be given off even after paint has dried and the smell is gone.

Even more misleading?  If the paint you purchase has a CP (certified product) or CL (certified label) seal, or says” conforms with ASTM” it  is a good thing BUT still doesn’t mean it is 100% natural and non-toxic.  It basically means the product has been properly labelled for health risks but they might still contain small amounts of ‘toxic’ chemicals - an adult using it once will not be harmed by these low levels however continual/cumulative exposure has not been taken into consideration. 

So what does a parent of an artist do?  Read on!

Let’s focus on paints.  There are many types of paints:  water colors, tempera, acrylic are the most common.   

I understand that some schools or parents who take their art seriously might want to use high quality professional grade acrylic  paints for their children- however you must be extra cautious.   These paints really are intended for adults.  

  • Some acrylic paints intended for professional use contain neurotoxins like lead in Cremnitz or flake white, cadmium in some yellows, oranges, and reds (which, disturbingly, can contain up to 90 per cent cadmium) and barium in permanent whites.
  • solvent-based acrylics contain turpentine, xylene, toluene, and methyl ethyl ketone, which could be toxic when inhaled.
  • water based acrylic paints are better, but can still contain small amount of carcinogenic and lung-irritating formaldehyde and ammonia as preservatives and stabilizers. Water-based artists' materials can also contain biocides as preservatives. Biocides can cause allergic skin reactions in individuals.
TIP for Kids:  
  • Look for Water based (they are still safer) , formaldehyde free,  VOC free and odor free.   
  • Most cheaper, student-quality acrylic paints like don't use heavy metals  (but they could contain VOCs)
  • If in doubt, request the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs). You can reject the most hazardous products by screening out those that describe serious health effects from the product or its ingredients.

'Chalk It Up' acrylic paints by Earth Safe Finishes

Although generally safe, water colors can sometimes contain heavy metals for certain pigments. Read the label and look for key chemicals  (cadmium etc) in the pigment names to avoid.   If unsure request the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs). You can reject the most hazardous products by screening out those that describe serious health effects from the product or its ingredients.


3.  PASTELS:  
Pastels are an amazing and fun medium to work with, and children especially love their versatility and the ability to use their fingers to blend the pastel color on the paper. That, of course, means, kids use their fingers when using pastels and this does lend itself to extra ingestion (ie kids put their hands in their mouths/noses/eyes etc).

Pastels are made almost of pure pigment (usually you mix pigment, chalk and a binder).  Good quality pastels and reputable manufacturers have a chart with the chemical breakdown of each colour. For the most part, toxic chemicals have been removed from most student level pastels, but there are some chemicals in some heavily pigmented pastels.  Most names include the name of the toxic chemical you want to avoid - so pay attention to the names.  Some of the most toxic substances are cobalt, chromium and cadmium which are all heavy metals and even asbestos. 
Pastels do release a lot of dust and this can also cause respiratory problems.  

  • If your kids love using pastels try natural ‘pastels’ like the ones I mention below.   I would avoid giving traditional pastels to younger kids.  
  •  For older children using traditional pastels consider using gloves, and if not insist on washing hands frequently.  Always  provide plenty of air circulation and look for brands that specify they are heavy-metal- and asbestos- free.

Brands I like:

These paints are commonly used for kids and are water based, odorless and pretty safe.    For the youngest artists I would choose green brands that use pigments from nature for their paints.  For older kids traditional tempera paint is fine.


More tips to keep in mind when buying paints for your kiddos
  1. 1.  Just because a paint product is marketed towards children does not mean it is 100% safe and non-toxic.
  2. 2. Look out for items that have a California Prop 65 label on them.   “The State of California requires clear and reasonable warnings on products and/or storage containers containing chemicals that have been shown to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm. Even if these products contain only trace levels of harmful chemicals, a warning is required by the State of California.”  For art items for kids, best to avoid purchasing if it has a Prop 65 label on the box.
  3. 3. NEVER use the same containers for paints that you do for food or drink
  4. 4. If in doubt, request the MSDS safety data sheet from the manufacturer (many are online) there you will be able to read if there are any harmful chemicals in the paint you are considering

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