By Ivory King
Written on 5/25/2018
There are fewer joys more chaotic than a child in the throes of creativity - paint flying, clay bits everywhere. Unconcerned with inevitable cleanup woes, their hands are doused, their faces daubed with color and whatever else might be on the craft table. The enjoyment and process are pure - but what about the art supplies? Despite legal safety requirements for arts and crafts products meant to be used by young children, some helpful-seeming terminology doesn’t have legal definitions. The term “non-toxic,” for example, is not federally regulated, or may not ensure that something is safe when it is “used in an unintended manner.”
Why should we buy products that are specifically meant to be used by children? Not only are little kids more prone to getting stuff on their skin or in their mouths, whether by accident or on purpose, their systems are more sensitive. Little bodies absorb chemicals more easily and substances can have more adverse effects on developing systems than on fully grown ones. This is why something like lead is so much more damaging to children than to adults - it’s still really bad for everybody, but kids are far more vulnerable since their brains are still growing and can be permanently damaged by being exposed to lead. For these reasons and more, it’s best to read labels while carefully looking for phrases such as “keep out of reach of children,” as well as hazard terms like “DANGER, CAUTION, WARNING, HAZARD, or POISON.”
Though labelling does not guarantee total safety, there is help to be had thanks to the Labeling Hazardous Art Materials Act and evaluation from the Consumer Products Safety Commission. There is also the Art and Creative Materials Institute, a nonprofit organization of manufacturers who have agreed to be evaluated by independent toxicologists. The AP, CP and HL seals are all indicative of evaluated products. A more thorough rundown is available from GreenAmerica.org’s art supply page.
Things get more challenging when the artist becomes more sophisticated. If your young Frida Kahlo is becoming more discerning, and wants to take up oil painting or ceramics, there are entire additional categories of ingredients that could keep you up at night. Pigments and ceramic glazes are often traditionally made from toxic minerals and other compounds. Cadmium, arsenic, and lead are just a few ingredients found in common professional-grade paint or other art supplies. Some of these are getting replaced with non-toxic or less toxic alternatives, but there have been decades, or even centuries of casualties from heavy use of these materials.
Revolutionizing canvases when it was discovered in 1817, cadmium brought light-fast yellows and reds to the works of Van Gogh, Monet, Matisse and many others. While it is toxic if inhaled or ingested, cadmium is present in low quantities in oil or acrylic paint and can be used safely with gloves and mask - best practices for anyone using top-quality materials. While the EU proposed a ban on cadmium pigment in 2014 the issue was dropped when it was shown that most sources of cadmium that impact water sources were due to industrial heavy metal - as well as an artist outcry that there were no equivalent alternatives and their work would suffer. More recently, Liquitex released a cadmium-free series of paints in late 2017.
One of the more infamously toxic media is polyester resin - a favorite of Post Minimalist sculptor Eva Hesse. Her fluid, organic pieces were often brought into being thanks to her deft but intimate handling of malleable resin and fiberglass. While no one can concretely attribute her early death to her choice of medium, she died at 34 from cancer after just 10 years of prolific creativity.
Hesse sculpture from Instagram @wovenstructuresinart
In practical terms, creating art could be one of the safer past times your child takes up. It is helpful to keep in mind that the materials that they might work with are not fully disclosed in ingredient lists, and are therefore difficult to fully verify. If you are also the creative type, it’s important to be your own best advocate - the labels mentioned above are a good start to making safer choices. But as you or your child may have specific needs that surpass what kid-friendly supplies can meet, you’ll want to exercise standard safety procedures like a well-ventilated work area, and wearing gear like safety glasses, a dust mask and nitrile gloves. Please also keep in mind hazardous materials disposal protocol as well, to keep your family safe and to keep your chosen media from hurting the environment.