CONSUMERISM

A vexing quest for art-room hazards

Worried about unseen dangers in classroom art supplies, teachers call for action

Lesley Krueger July 27 1981
CONSUMERISM

A vexing quest for art-room hazards

Worried about unseen dangers in classroom art supplies, teachers call for action

Lesley Krueger July 27 1981

A vexing quest for art-room hazards

CONSUMERISM

Worried about unseen dangers in classroom art supplies, teachers call for action

Lesley Krueger

While Michael McCann visited a friend’s New York silk-screening class in 1974, he shared two experiences with the young students: delight in their art and a bad headache. The delight was natural enough, but the Toronto-born chemist wondered what caused the children’s chronic headaches. This question would lead the New York-based McCann into a seven-year crusade against hazardous art products, which has seen dawning teacher concern and—just last month—the start of voluntary labelling and toxicity controls in the art materials industry. McCann counts both as victories, but his first victory was in that Lower East Side classroom where he recommended better ventilation. The headaches ceased. Explains McCann: “Those children were drunk on fumes from the solvent.”

Teachers have long been concerned about hazards in art classrooms (and, for that matter, science laboratories and gymnasiums). But identifying art hazards has been a particular problem because of lax testing and poor labelling of American products, imported because of the lack of a domestic industry and used in Canadian schools. For instance, many clays contain silica, which can raise a lung-scarring dust. There’s lead in flake white oil paint, highly toxic toluene in some felt pens and

nerve-damaging n-hexane (an intoxicant well known to glue sniffers) in rubber cement. Many ceramic glazes contain toxins (among them lead, cadmium and zinc chromate), but teachers don’t know which ones.

Joy Turner Luke, of the U.S. Artists Equity Association, has a simple diagnosis of the problem: art materials manufacturers have always labelled acutely poisonous materials, but only lately has research implicated longterm buildup of previously unsuspected toxins. “The switch in emphasis from concern about acute toxicity to chronic toxicity caught manufacturers flatfooted,” she says. Art materials manufacturers don’t test products for chronic toxicity, she points out, and seldom list contents so that others can do so.

Canada imports these poorly labelled products in bulk. And a peculiarly Canadian twist complicates matters: because federal, provincial and local authorities can all test products, significant problems are easily missed. Premier testing responsibility lies in Ottawa with the product safety branch of the department of consumer and corporate affairs. According to product safety officer Catherine McClymont, import documents are inspected to check product conformity with Canadian law, and spot tests carried out on items inspectors buy off the shelves. But, says McClymont, the government relies largely on the manufacturer. “We

can’t test everything,” she says, which means hazards can and do pass undetected.

Left worrying about the undetected hazards are local school boards. Provincial governments are simply middlemen, which test some suspect products and routinely distribute federal or foreign test results to local authorities. But school boards are legally liable for injury suffered in the schools. No art hazard lawsuits have yet been filed, but physical education suits filed by students injured in physical education classes—among them a $860,000 case in Prince George, B.C.—have left school trustees scared. Now, says visual arts co-ordinator Bill Stadnyk of the Scarborough, Ont., board of education, they

follow up every rumor—hard enough for the big boards, impossible for small ones—to try to fill gaps left by federal tests.

Boards’ active involvement in product testing started 12 years ago with what remains the biggest scare to date. A mix used by elementary schoolchildren to make puppet heads was found to contain cancer-causing asbestos. “And that blew the lid off,” according to communications director Charles Gosbee of the Vancouver school board. Case followed case. Three years ago a wallpaper paste used—and sometimes eaten—by young schoolchildren was found to contain a pesticide. “Now they’ve got rid of the pesticide,” says Scarborough’s Stadnyk, “and replaced it with a food preservative some say causes cancer. I don’t believe that, but I have to check it out.”

Gosbee observes that a type of correction fluid feared toxic is currently under examination in Vancouver. But, he adds, boards don’t like this responsibility. For one thing, it’s expensive— Gosbee says the testing of art hazards accounts for “a surprisingly large part” of the board’s $2.8-million contract with the Vancouver Board of Health. For another, boards fear lawsuits from manufacturers claiming their banned product is indeed safe.

What, then, is to be done? A big step was taken this January when responsible art materials companies agreed to voluntary controls. Luke, who heads the artists’ and manufacturers’ group that explored the regulations, says the agreement was largely due to the threat of mandatory federal controls, although Executive Director Howard Landstrom of the U.S. National Art Materials Trade Association (NAMTA) cites another impetus: “bad publicity.” Fear of more bad press makes NAMTA manufacturers council Chairman Patrick Indence refuse all comment: “My company [Binney & Smith, makers of Crayola crayons] asked me to withdraw from the public arena for a while.”

Last month Luke’s committee voted to hire an independent toxicologist to spot-test products, and to phase in standardized voluntary labelling starting next January. But hazards expert McCann points out that not all manufacturers have said they will comply. So far the well-known M. Grumbacher and Strathmore companies are co-operating. Luke won’t yet name the holdouts, in case they can be persuaded. Adds McCann: “I'm still entirely in favor of mandatory controls. That way you can be sure if it doesn’t have a warning, it isn’t toxic.”

In the meantime, however, McCann urges care and substitution. Children under 12, whose small bodies metabolize toxins quickly, should be vigilantly protected—for example, they should not be allowed to use a ceramic glaze. “Why not let them paint their pots?” Older students, he adds, should be taught to use safe techniques and protective equipment in arts such as silkscreening, where exposure to toxins is inevitable.

Such caution is now filtering into schools—and is not lost on art teachers. In British Columbia, the B.C. Teachers Federation is planning to bargain for the first time this fall for better working conditions. Says B.C. Art Teachers Association President Robert King: “We’re in the classroom I don’t know how many years, and we need to make sure we’re safe there.” Adds McCann: “We probably still don’t know all the toxins, but for the first time I’m starting to see progress in dealing with the ones we do know.”