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Fine-Arts Products Industry Will Label Toxic Items Containing Toxins

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One of every five fine-arts products recently tested--including many used in schools--has been found to contain known toxins, and such products will soon be required to bear warning labels.

The hazardous products, many of them glazes used in ceramics, were identified as part of a newly undertaken voluntary labeling program, which the fine-arts-supplies industry hopes will forestall government regulation.

But critics of the industry complain that the program understates the use of toxins in fine-arts materials, because chemists know little about many of the substances involved, and only firms that volunteer for the program are having their products tested.

Widely Used Supplies

Fine-arts supplies, which range from oil and acrylic paints to ceramics and clays, are widely used in secondary-school art programs. Although some have long been known to contain the same hazardous chemicals used in industry--such as toxic solvents in rubber cement and ethers in lacquer thinners--their use has not been subject to regulation.

And although a Boston-based trade organization, the Arts and Crafts Materials Institute, has been certifying the safety of children's art materials, such as crayons, for more than 40 years, no such certification program has existed for fine-arts supplies.

"You take anything controlled in industry--lead, cadmium, asbestos, silica--and you'll find find them in high schools. And they don't even know they're there," according to Monona Rossol, president of the Center for Occuptional Hazards in New York.

"If osha went in they'd shut them down," she said, referring to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Many products now on the market include substances, such as synthetic pigments and dyes, "about which we know little or nothing," Ms. Rossol says. "Probably many are very dangerous; we don't know."

Linked to Chronic Ailments

Studies by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have linked chemicals used in art supplies to chronic ailments afflicting the nervous system, the heart, and the reproductive system. Such ailments, which the labeling program is principally designed to combat, are often hard to detect, because they develop over time.

Children are particularly susceptible to such disorders, experts say, due to their low body weights, their immature immune systems, and the weakness of their lung-clearing mechanisms.

Labeling Program

Together with groups representing professional artists, manufacturers developed the new labeling program as an alternative to pending legislation in California, and similar proposed legislation in Massachusetts and New York, that would require product labeling. In all three states, legislation was pro-posed after studies demonstrated that school art supplies contain toxic chemicals that pose chronic health hazards.

Under the industry program, participating manufacturers would submit their products to a trade organization for evaluation. Products that contain no known toxins would be certified as being in compliance with industry standards, even though they might include substances about which little is known.

Those found to contain known toxins would be labeled to warn consumers of the potential hazard.

Manufacturers will not be required to list all of a product's ingredients--only those known to be toxic.

20 Percent Toxic

Of the 150 products tested so far, about 20 percent have been found to contain toxic materials, according to Deborah Fanning, director of the Arts and Crafts Materials Institute, which is administering the tests.

Eighteen percent will require chronic-hazard labeling, according to Ms. Fanning. The vast majority of these are glazes.

Another 12 or 13 firms are expected to join the program soon, Ms. Fanning said, doubling the number of products tested and raising the number of firms participating to 35--about 90 percent of U.S. producers.

But estimates vary on how much of the domestic market these firms control. And few suppliers of crafts and other fine-art supplies besides paints and drawing materials are participating, Ms. Rossol claims.

"They [the program's sponsors] think they're dealing with all art materials ... That's wrong," Ms. Rossol says. Products involved include "a huge amount of paints and a smattering of the others," she notes.

"We're not talking about the hundreds and hundreds of small companies that supply ceramics," she says, nor are many foreign firms that export to the U.S. participating.

A Hazard in Schools

In many cases, hazardous products will continue to find their way into classrooms, Ms. Rossol says, in part because schools buy supplies from the lowest bidder--which in the case of art supplies often means a small or foreign firm--and because art teachers tend to be less aware than professional artists of the dangers associated with materials.

Even in the case of children's art supplies, which the Arts and Crafts Materials Institute has been screening for more than 40 years--assigning an Authorized Product seal to those that meet industry safety standards and a Certified Product seal to those that also meet quality standards--schools continue to use hazardous substances, experts agree.

But while Ms. Fanning contends that "85 to 95 percent of children's products on the market for years have been certified as nontoxic," Ms. Rossel says, "I'd like to see them prove it."

"Most of the time we look in [on teachers] and they say, 'AP, CP what?"' Ms. Rossol says. "It's been in effect for more than 40 years, but nobody knows about it."

Teachers at Fault

Ms. Rossol says part of the fault lies with art teachers, many of whom have "had a feeling they're immune" from the potentially hazardous effects of art materials.

But that may be changing, according to Thomas Hatfield, executive director of the Washington-based National Art Education Association, a teachers' group that receives about a dozen inquiries a year about the level of safety of arts supplies.

"It is a concern, particularly... in the public school system," Mr. Hatfield said. And referring to teachers, he said, "I think to some extent they are aware of it. How much they're aware I just don't know."

According to Beverly Davis, also of the naea, the association keeps in close contact with the Arts and Crafts Materials Institute, and refers callers there, as well as to the Center for Occupational Hazards. The association has also published in its newsletter articles about dangerous materials, and has circulated6a "not very comprehensive" booklet on art safety guidelines.

Legislation Preferred

In 1982, the American Federation of Teachers adopted an official policy statement acknowledging that "art teachers and students do work with" potentially hazardous substances, and advocated the labeling of all ingredients used in art supplies and "a listing of [the] health hazards that could result."

While the National Education Association "would of course oppose the use of any product that could have a harmful effect on children," an nea spokesman said he doubts the organization has an official position on the issue.

Ms. Rossol says she favors legislation that would make labeling mandatory. She also would require manufacturers to list all ingredients used in their products.

"We feel mothers and teachers should know, even before they give a child a product, what is in it," she says. "We're very pleased that standards have been developed, but we'd like to see legal language written and have it put in a bill."

Manufacturers oppose mandatory labeling "number one, because its more expensive, and number two, because it would require companies to give confidential formulas to the government," counters Ms. Fanning.

But according to Ms. Rossol: "We should be erring on the side of caution ... instead of putting teachers at risk and students at risk."

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