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 December 2006

Creating Art Safely

Even in this high-tech world, millions of children will receive crayons, markers, paints and other relatively “low-tech” art supplies this holiday season. Allowing these children, as well as adult artists, to practice their drawing, painting and other art making in a safe environment was the goal of ASTM Subcommittee D01.57 on Artist Paints and Related Materials when it originally developed standard D 4236, Practice for Labeling Art Materials for Chronic Health Hazards, over two decades ago. Subcommittee D01.57 is part of ASTM International Committee D01 on Paint and Related Coatings, Materials, and Applications.

The roots of Practice D 4236 go back to the late 1970s, according to Mark Gottsegen, chair of Subcommittee D01.57 and associate professor in the art department at the University of North Carolina. A series of public interest research groups at state levels had begun to study the potential health hazards of art materials. “There was much anecdotal evidence, but not much science at that time,” says Gottsegen.

Woodhall (Sandy) Stopford, assistant clinical professor, Duke University Medical Center, and member of the Art and Creative Materials Association, is a toxicologist who chaired the task group that developed D 4236. Stopford says that, in order to avoid the passage of legislation that would have required labeling of art materials with any detectable level of a metal in the product (which would have amounted to hazard labeling of all art materials), it was essential to use risk assessment to develop acceptable levels of toxicants that might be found in art materials. The approval of practice D 4236 in 1983 was the result of this work.

Joy Turner Luke, who was chair of Subcommittee D01.57 when D 4236 was originally approved, saw that individual states were continuing their investigations into the health hazards of art materials and she realized the importance of labeling laws being covered by one federal law rather than up to 50 different state laws. Her work was important in convincing the U.S. Congress to add an amendment, the Labeling for Hazardous Art Materials Act, to the Federal Hazardous Substances Act in 1988. Practice D 4236-88 was incorporated into this amendment.
Practice D 4236 provides a standard for developing precautionary labels concerning chronic health hazards related to the use of art materials. It contains requirements that art material producers and packagers need to meet to conform to the standard, and includes annexes that contain chronic health statements and precautionary statements. In addition, an appendix provides guidelines for organizations that certify material as conforming to the standard.

Like any ASTM standard, D 4236 is a work in progress. A current challenge for Subcommittee D01.57 is to develop a workable definition of the term “non-toxic” to include in the standard. While that term is not addressed in either D 4236 or in the Labeling for Hazardous Art Materials Act, it is a phrase that school districts often look for whenever purchasing art supplies to be used by children.

Gottsegen and Stopford both feel that practice D 4236 has been beneficial to the art materials industry and to artists in general. “Studies of artists done prior to the implementation of this standard found increased death rates from various types of cancers, such as leukemia,” says Stopford. “By removing ingredients with known chronic toxic potential or by using ingredients with low levels of chronic toxic contaminants such that hazard labeling is not necessary, risks to users would be expected to be less. When this is not possible, then appropriate hazard labeling gives users warning to either avoid using affected materials or to implement appropriate practices to decrease exposure."
Gottsegen, who credits Joy Turner Luke with alerting the U.S. federal government to the importance of D 4236, says, “Artists recognize that D 4236 has had a very positive effect on the industry and on their own health.” In addition, Gottsegen believes that Subcommittee D01.57 itself has played an important role simply by recognizing that artists should feel confident in the safety of the tools they use.

Artists and parents of young artists around the world would surely agree.

(Artwork courtesy of Jimmy and Chris Wilhelm)

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