Natural Life Magazine

Crafting for a Greener World
Searching for Safe and Healthy Art and Craft Materials
by Robyn Coburn

collage by Robyn CoburnIn 1987, I walked into the textiles lab at the University of Wollongong School of Creative Arts in Australia, excited to learn all I could about fiber arts. I was especially excited by the first semester curriculum, which would include dye techniques that I expected to be intensely useful to me as a costume and set designer.

I learned a lot about dyeing cloth and yarns but, after one semester, I was driven out of the textiles lab by what turned out to be a sensitivity to diazo dye powders. Despite following all the mandated safety protocols, including dust masks while measuring and precision weighing the powders, and very thorough clean-up procedures, I spent the five months of the session feeling like I had gravel in my eyes every time I went into the workshop.

These were industrial level “artist quality” dyes. I had never before had any kind of allergic reaction to commercial consumer dyes in either powder or liquid form. Luckily, my costuming needs and my home dyeing have been amply supplied by those dyes that are available at the supermarket.

While it is true that the dye powders I was using all those years ago were certainly not to be considered, nor labeled, “non-toxic,” my experience shows that for some users the ordinary recommended safety precautions may be inadequate. I remain wary of powdered pigments of any kind.

Fast forward twenty years to today. The array of art supplies is dizzying – as is the amount of safety information now available to all of us as consumers.

In my quest to bring more ecological sensitivity to my own arts and crafts practice, I started considering alternatives to commercially available crafting paints. I went searching for safe and healthy art and craft materials. I was looking for paints that would be practical replacements for use in my professional crafting. I’m not talking about making tie dyed papers out of shaving cream and food coloring. That’s tremendous fun, but it may not result in the kind of product that I can offer for sale because I don’t know how colorfast the end result will be.

One kind of permanent and durable paint that is suitable for porous surfaces is milk paint. Casein, the milk protein, is the binder that holds the pigment. In the right formulation, it will dry to a somewhat glossy surface, is resistant to mildew and doesn’t usually require a sealer.

I found recipes that included curdling the milk and slaking (soaking overnight to make soluble) the pigment powders. I found recipes that start with cottage cheese. I found that some of these recipes include the use of borax for its anti-fungal properties. Borax can be used as a laundry additive to help soften water and, sprinkled on the floor close to or behind your baseboards, will kill cockroaches and fleas by slowly dehydrating them.

Then I started looking at the kind of pigments that would be used for milk paints. I noticed that recipes called for clay powders or tempera powders. Many of these are considered non-toxic but, nonetheless, safety websites recommend using dust masks or even respirators when mixing them. So my personal alarm bells went off yet again. I suppose that most people would not be sensitive to non-toxic powdered pigments – but then most people in my textiles class didn’t have any problem with the diazo dyes.

Finally, considering the price of milk these days, I decided to give a rain check to the milk paint project.

What Does “Non-Toxic” Mean Anyway?

In the context of the official product label, “non-toxic” is intended to mean that if your child accidentally ingests some of it, she won’t get sick, and there is no need for alarm. The assumption is that the quantity available for ingestion is only as was in the purchased container, labeled for consumer use. That is to say, your toddler isn’t drinking a barrel of the stuff. Is milk paint non-toxic? I can’t help feeling that a child swallowing a mouthful of curdled milk and borax might feel woozy afterwards.

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The American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) mandates the specific tests for ascertaining the toxicity of all materials used by consumers and industry. The Annual Book of ASTM Standards is eighty volumes and contains over twelve thousand standards. The ASTM mandates labeling of art supplies with different levels of safety information.

Additionally, there is a non-profit group with even more rigorous testing standards and that adds a certification stamp to the product label. The Art and Creative Materials Institute works with toxicologists at Duke University to extensively test every formulation of art materials from manufacturers seeking ACMI certification.

Dr. Woodhall Stopford (whose impressive list of published toxicology research studies covers pages and pages …. and pages) examines how formulations might be expected to affect a one-year-old child, including considering allergies. Cost is not considered to be a factor. The testers make a distinction between “acute” and “chronic” effects and look at every ingredient singly and in combination before being willing to award their AP (Approved Product) certification seal.

In the past, the ACMI has reacted very swiftly to scares about unexpected contaminants in non-toxic art materials, like the asbestos in crayons fear a decade ago. ACMI testing showed this to be unfounded and no products were recalled.

As cool as it is to make one’s own dyes and paints from clays, plants or insects, it should be remembered that just because they are from natural sources does not mean that they are non-toxic or not volatile. Where and how plants or creatures have been harvested must also be considered. Many plant-based dyestuffs require just as stringent attention to personal safety in use as any commercial product. And the resultant leftovers should be disposed of with as much care.

Disposal Concerns

Paint goes bad after a while. Home-made paints go bad fast and often need refrigeration, but they tend to be biodegradable and safe for the trash or even compost.

Commercial paints, especially house paints, should be disposed of properly, by being taken to a hazardous waste collection point. Even acrylic paints are not desirable in landfills.

I don’t ever have leftover craft paints waiting for proper disposal. I use every last drop of my paints, dyes, inks and glues. I prefer to buy smaller containers rather than big bulk sizes for the very reason that I will use it all well before it reaches the end of its shelf life. The empty containers are almost all recyclable plastic. I’m excited by advances in science, new products and processes that will take old vinyl and acrylic paint and recycle it in much the same way as PET bottles are recycled.

How Not to Live in Fear

The most important part of the ACMI website may well be this statement: “What makes an art material ‘safe’? Knowledge of materials and their proper use makes them safe.”

Much of that is common sense and erring on the side of safety, even with non-toxics. If you are susceptible to skin allergies, wear gloves – non-latex might be best. If you ever have respiratory problems, consider masks even when the odors or particulates are from non-toxic products. Don’t eat while working in your studio, wear dedicated aprons or smocks for dirty work and wash your hands thoroughly at the end of your work session.

I’m reassured by statistics from the CDC stating that ninety-five percent of accidental poisoning deaths are from unintentional ingesting of pharmaceutical and other drugs – not art supplies – and that the fewest deaths from accidental poisonings are in the under-fifteen age group, the group that the non-toxic labels are most designed to protect.

Of the calls to poison control centers, about half involve children under the age of six, with the poisonous substances listed as primarily “cosmetics and personal care products, cleaning substances, pain relievers, topical medications, foreign bodies, cough and cold preparations and plants.”

So this system of testing art supplies for toxicity and affixing warning labels where warranted does appear to be working to keep people – especially children – safe. I still have doubts, especially fueled by the recent problems with lead in the painted surfaces of toys manufactured by major toy companies and the melamine contamination of food products.

I look for the ACMI seal and I look for products made in the USA, Canada or Europe, but it is surprisingly difficult to find art supplies not manufactured in China. I stick to known brands when I can, with reputations to uphold and R&D departments, rather than no-name mystery companies.

Now, if we could only trust that the manufacturing process was green, energy efficient and clean, the factory workers were adults, paid a fair wage with safe conditions and that the manufacturers continued to maintain the standards as described on the labeling.

Like so many other areas where we would like to be ecologically sound, there are hard choices and sometimes compromises. In the end we can only do our best within our own budgets. But we can always choose to be safe. So be sure you're using safe and healthy art and craft materials.

After a long career designing for theater and independent films, Robyn Coburn finds her joy as an unschooling mother who also writes and crafts. She has been a confirmed greenie since working for Greenpeace during her college years in Australia. Robyn is currently working on two crafty books, a fairy tale screenplay and a TV series about doll making and collecting. A past speaker and funshop presenter at Live and Learn Unschooling conferences, she contributes regularly to unschooling e-lists. She lives in Los Angeles, California with her husband James and ever inspiring daughter Jayn. Contact her by email or visit her website to view her work.


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