It’s that time again – kids are headed back to school, and so this month I’m going to talk about another safety related topic; one you might not have even thought of. Toxic art supplies. I recently saw an article at safbaby.com highlighting a current study by the Environmental Working Group that found asbestos in several brands of crayons that had been imported from China and mostly sold at dollar stores across the country. This mimicked a smaller study done in Seattle in 2001, where 3 brands of crayons were found to contain asbestos, leading the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ask for those brands to be reformulated. Other older reports from as far back as 1994 resulted in a recall of 11 brands of crayons sold in the US, but imported from China, because they all contained lead. Some had levels high enough to have caused acute lead poisoning in children who chewed on them, but ingested very little. All had high enough levels to contribute significantly to overall lead exposure over time and some would have caused acute poisoning if a whole crayon were ingested at once. The EcoWaste Coallition found crayons sold in the Phillipines contained unsafe levels of mercury. So if you travel, remember this problem of toxic children’s products, is global. Most of you who have or haven’t observed children know that kids put everything they touch in their mouths. Crayons are one of the most common art supplies and probably one of the most frequently ingested.
Other common ingredients of crayons that may cause health issues are paraffins, aromatic amines, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons as well as chemical dyes.
Paraffin is derived from petroleum, coal or oil shale and uses toxic chemicals such as toluene and benzene in the manufacturing process. While these toxic solvents should be removed via distillation in the most pure forms of paraffin wax, sometimes small amounts remain. Many scientists used to be firmly encamped in the “dose makes the poison” camp; meaning that a substance could be considered non-toxic if it required large amounts to effect an acute negative response (either death or compromised health) to a short term exposure. What time is proving however, is that chronic exposure to even extremely small amounts often results in serious environmental and health impacts. Truth is, biochemical and environmental science is just not simple and sure; it is an evolving field that constantly challenges our “facts”.
Even, Crayola brand crayons, which are probably the oldest, most trusted and most frequently used brand in America may be misleadingly “safe”. Although certified as non-toxic by the Art And Creative Materials Institute, they will not disclose a full ingredients list, stating “proprietary” privilege. Instead, Crayola recommends calling the poison control center if your child has an adverse reaction or ingests one of their products. Their Materials Safety Data Sheet does come with some warnings you may not find on the product box:
“Provide adult supervision in a well ventilated area for techniques involving melted crayons. Ironing should be done by an adult in a well ventilated area. Overheating wax crayons during melting or ironing may release irritating fumes. [And if ingested], contact local poison control center or physician immediately.”
Unfortunately, even some of the more popular natural brand crayons, while free of other concerning ingredients often still contain paraffin. So depending on the purity of the paraffin, and your concern about a petroleum based product and manufacturing by-products, you may want or need something more environmentally friendly and health conscious for your child. I only know of a short list on the market that may be safer choices: Eco Crayons by Eco Kids, Clear Hills Honey Co., Honey Sticks, We Can Too Vegie Crayons, and Filana. Quality and cost are of course an issue, and so it was refreshing to see that when reviewed by Waldorf teacher Sarah Beldwin at BellaLuna toys, the Filana crayons were actually comparable and even perhaps superior in feel and performance. Stockmar brand had long been the brand of choice in Waldorf circles, but perhaps because their (and other brands) marketing is very misleading. Stockmar crayons are made “with or of” bee’s wax (10% to be exact) and not “from” bee’s wax which allows for the bulk of the product to actually be paraffin wax while boldly advertising on the packaging simply as bee’s wax. In addition, Stockmar uses what are considered to be food grade, non-toxic synthetic pigments, but not plant derived pigments.
The take home message is this: children’s products, toys and art supplies are a significant source of potentially harmful substances. While one single exposure often may not be enough to cause significantly negative health impacts, the totality of exposures to various toxin inclusive products or chronic exposure over time may have huge impacts on their wellbeing and development. Parents can not trust the market to be honest and transparent. Parents have to be reading, researching, and evaluating what exposure they are comfortable with and selecting purchases accordingly. It’s not about giving up our or our children’s favorite things; it is about using our voice and our purchasing power to demand better quality.
Wishing you a school year full of color!
Dr. Summer Beattie, ND is a graduate of Bastyzr University. She has over 8 years experience as a Naturopathic Doctor specializing in women’s health with an emphasis on environmental medicine. Having served two terms on the board of directors for the Washington Association of Naturopathic Physicians, she has also worked in the medical aesthetics field since 2008. You can reach her at email@example.com or