Safe and Eco-friendly Art Supplies

Don't get exposed to toxic hazards, find out how you and your kids can avoid health risks when in the studio.

Legend has it that Vincent Van Gogh was driven mad by exposure to toxic substances in his art studio. Today, artist materials are tested and regulated for health and environmental safety, however they may still contain chemicals and substances such as lead, dioxins, silica, and arsenic that can pose a health risk.

While hazardous materials such as lead (a highly toxic metal linked to organ and nervous system damage) are limited by government regulations, Health Canada information acknowledges the presence of inorganic lead pigments in inks, dyes, paints and pastels, wax crayons, and coloured glazes for pottery and glassware. And just last month, there were media reports that Health Canada testing found heavy metals exceeded proposed impurity levels in several brands of children’s face paints.

Children are particularly vulnerable to toxic exposures since their organs and nervous systems are still developing. Professional artists and full-time art students may be exposed to more hazardous substances and over longer periods of time. But whether art is child’s play or a lifetime occupation, it’s important to be informed and safe when buying and using artist materials.

Art smarts for kids

Michelle Abrams is a purchaser at AboveGround Art Supplies in Toronto, a major supplier for the nearby art college, as well as children’s art schools and the general public. She’s undergone the federal government’s Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHIMIS) training with regard to toxicity in art materials, and says that pigment is still one of the major areas for concern.

“Some pigments are synthetic and may be less toxic,” says Abrams, “but that doesn’t mean that they are completely free of toxins. Where kids are concerned, they are usually using water-based tempura, not artists’ paints. Tempura uses less pigment and non-toxic types of pigment, so is safer than other paints.”

Because of children’s vulnerability to toxic exposure, Lawrence Sagar, owner of the Art Garage, a busy children’s art school in east-end Toronto, resists parents’ requests for classes such as photography or oil painting. “I wouldn’t even consider oil paints for kids,” Sagar says. “Everything we use is water-based including paints, solvents and clays.” He does any glazing himself in an outdoor environment, likewise for any shellacs or spray adhesives used.

Sagar recommends that parents become informed, read labels, ask for information and deal at reputable suppliers with knowledgeable staff.

Professional exposure

At the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD), studio manager Nick Hooper works with a variety of specialized studio technicians who ensure that materials comply with safety standards both in terms of substances themselves and how they’re used. “Our understanding of safety issues is increasing all the time,” he says. “The key thing, whether you’re dealing with kids or adults, is to look at exposure. How is the product being used? How often is the person exposed to it? If there are environmental issues such as inhalation of harmful vapours, is the person wearing protective gear?”

At OCAD, all aerosal spraying is done in booths with powerful ventilation and filtering systems to capture anything in the air so it isn’t spread around. Solvents are increasingly vegetable-based to cut exposure to hydro-carbon chemicals. Turpentine, which Hooper calls a “nasty poisonous substance” is now banned at the college.

Protect yourself

Other hazards to watch for include silica particles in dry clay dust (keep it moist to dampen dust); toxic vapours in photography darkrooms (wear a mask and gloves); inhalation of fumes from cadmium-containing silver solders used in stained glass construction; and toxic solvents found in permanent felt-tipped markers. 

Consumers should look for the AP (Approved Product) seal of the Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI). A non-profit association based in the U.S., the ACMI represents manufacturers from around the globe. Their toxicology team tests products to ensure that they meet government standards for safety and labeling.

In addition to buying products with an AP seal, consumers should look for other warning labels indicating material that is flammable, poisonous, explosive or corrosive.

Abrams says to read labels and ask for any additional information such as that found on Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) on file at art supply stories or available from manufacturers such as Prang or Crayola.

Other safety tips for children include:

•    Don’t allow food or drinks in the art area to avoid contamination

•    Avoid dusts or powders that require mixing; use liquid tempera paints and premixed clays

•    Keep materials in original containers that display safety precautions

•    Avoid solvents, permanent markers, rubber cement and instant paper mache

Additional Resources

A guide on toxic art substances and safer alternatives is available on Environmental Defence’s web site.

Sites devoted to creating healthy environments for kids often contain information on safe art supplies and handling. These include:, and