Heading back to school can mean investing in lots of school supplies, including art supplies and other tools for home use. Even the little ones want to use big brother’s or sister’s school supplies. Paint, crayons, pens and pencils, clay, markers—these can be some of the most exciting things around for your children.
They can also contain all kinds of dangerous chemicals. Paint, for example, may get its color from cadmium, cobalt, and other poisonous minerals.
You want safe supplies for your kids, but it can be hard to tell what’s really safe. Do you need crayons made from organic soybean oil, or is it enough to avoid heavy metals in your paints?
How old are your kids?
Kids under three are much more likely than older children to eat art supplies. Look for the label “non-toxic” on any art supplies you use with preschool kids. Remember, kids under three are also more likely to choke on art supplies, so take “Not for children under the age of three” warnings seriously.
You’ll be happier if you choose washable supplies for toddlers, and they’re less likely to contain any toxins, too. Crayons and finger paints are good choices for the youngest artists at your house.
For elementary-aged kids, look for art supplies designed for children.
Art supplies intended for kids under 12 are subject to government requirements set out by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The specific law in question is the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, or CPSIA.
CPSIA covers lead, phthalates, and a variety of other dangerous substances. Manufacturers subject to this rule must have their products tested by a third party.
The Art & Creative Materials Institute is a group of manufacturers who have voluntarily agreed to hold themselves to a higher standard. They have a seal that guarantees that their goods are non-toxic. That means that they are not poisonous, even if a child actually eats them. You don’t want kids to eat their school supplies, of course, but it’s good to know that they would be safe if they did.
Apart from “AP Certified Non-Toxic” and “CPSIA Certified,” the term “non-toxic” has no official meaning. As long as no materials in the art supplies are officially considered harmful substances—poisons—art supplies can be labeled “non-toxic.”
Adult supplies, from pens to glue to oil paints, must have warning labels if they contain harmful substances. But the labeling requirements are based on the assumption that people will use them in the expected ways. If you buy supplies that aren’t intended for kids, or share your supplies with your kids, make sure that they know how to use them safely.
For example, painting your body with paint that is not designed for this purpose is not healthy. Most adults wouldn’t decide to paint themselves, but kids might.
While buying discount brands of supplies can be thrifty, you should think twice. The US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) recently released a report listing dollar-store brands of crayons containing asbestos, binders with phthalates, and various other dangerous school supplies.
These items were labeled “non-toxic.”
PIRG’s Safer School Supplies Shopping Guide lists their recommendations.
In general, pick supplies designed for kids, choose AP Certified brands if possible, and supervise young children. It’s better to be safe than sorry.