Art is probably one of the last things you think of when you worry about keeping your child safe. However, there are a few cautions that every parent should keep in mind when buying and providing art supplies for children.
Art supplies that are widely available for children today are much safer and less toxic than a generation ago. However, children can still suffer ill effects from inappropriate or incorrectly used art supplies. These effects can range from the very minor skin or eye irritations to headaches and tummy aches, and in extreme cases, brain damage or even death. Research has identified three common ways children can be harmed.
The first and most common is ingestion. Young children especially are prone to put things into their mouths, so swallowing art materials is a real danger. Even older children, and many adults, chew the ends of pencils and paint brushes, creating fragments of paint or enamel that are swallowed. Some children can’t resist the temptation to taste glue or paint. While eating these in small amounts may not harm most children, parents need to be watchful. Statistics show that Poison Control centers report the most common calls regard children ingesting art supplies.
Another way children can be harmed is through inhalation. Fumes from oil paints, markers and solvents can be especially damaging. Also to be avoided are aerosol sprays, such as spray paints and fixatives. Young children should never use sprays, and older children should always use a mask and work with adult supervision. An additional inhalation danger is from powders, such as chalk and soft pastel dust, particles of clay and paint. I was surprised recently to find powdered tempera paints for sale at a local store. While they may be less expensive than the ready-to-use paints, they pose too great a danger for children and should be avoided.
A third, but less common danger for children is from absorption through the skin. Some paints and clay can contain irritants that can be harmful when used over extended periods. Also, such things as plasters, instant papier-mache and dyes should be avoided by young children.
The Center for Occupational Hazards has compiled a list of materials that are too toxic for children under twelve: mineral spirits, turpentine, rubber cement, shellac, paints and inks with solvents, permanent felt-tip markers, oil paints, ceramic glazes and enamels, paints or pigments in powdered form, soft pastels, photographic chemicals, and wallpaper paste. Materials that should be avoided by all children include any lead-containing material, such as paints, printing inks and ceramic glazes and enamel; and products containing asbestos, such as vermiculite, instant papier-mache and asbestos gloves and other heat-proof items.
Safe shopping tipsParents must be alert to the dangers that children may face from those colorful and tempting supplies lining the shelves in stores. Safe shopping is fairly simple. First, avoid damaged packages, as the materials inside may also be damaged. Always look for the seal or label that indicates product safety information. Every recommended product will have a round logo with AP in the center, indicating that it conforms to the Art & Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) standards of safety. Don’t buy unlabeled art supplies or a package where the safety information is covered by a price sticker. If it doesn’t have this seal or information visible, I won’t buy it for my grandchildren or art students.
At home, check periodically for chipped, cracked or worn finishes on pencils and paint brushes, and discard damaged items. When replacing them, look for plastic or unpainted wood if you are shopping for young children. Also, teach children scissor safety: no running with scissors; pass scissors handle first; carry scissors with the point down. Make sure your child has scissors that fit his or her hand, neither too small nor too large, to avoid misuse and accidents. A few simple precautions will keep your child safe and give you peace of mind.
Sharon Hammer Baker currently teaches art for children and adults in her studio in the Jones Building in Findlay. An active studio artist working in mixed media and fibers, exhibiting regularly in invitational, group and solo shows, she has artworks in academic, corporate and private collections. She is also a poet, gardener, naturalist, and grandmother. She can be reached at