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Asbestos and Benzene in Crayons and Markers

school supplies

Story at-a-glance -

  • Asbestos describes six types of fibrous, heat-resistant, known carcinogenic minerals, which are banned in nearly 60 countries and kills 100,000 people each year
  • Researchers found asbestos in Playskool crayons, phthalates in blue three-ring binders, and benzene in dry erase markers, all commonly purchased in back-to-school supplies for young children
  • As Brazil recently banned mining and use of asbestos, Russia gears up to be the primary exporter to the U.S.; an attorney for the EWG fears a new EPA proposal may open the door to greater use of asbestos in consumer products
  • Seek out labels indicating the product has been tested and is free of harmful chemicals, such as the AP label from The Art and Creative Materials Institute

By Dr. Mercola

The term “asbestos” is used to describe six types of fibrous, heat-resistant asbestos minerals: chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite and actinolite — all of which are carcinogenic to humans.1 While asbestos kills 100,000 people each year and is banned in nearly 60 countries,2 the mineral continues to be legally used in the U.S.3

The World Health Organization calls exposure to benzene a major public health concern4 as it has been associated with a range of cancers and aplastic anemia. Sources include industrial processes, indoor air, food and water. The chemical is liquid at room temperature and evaporates quickly, often sinking to low-lying areas as the vapor is heavier than air.5

A recent report from a federation of U.S. and Canadian nonprofit organizations operating under the umbrella of the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups (US PIRG) reveals these same chemicals may be found in some of the back-to-school supplies you purchase for your children.6

Leave These Off Your Back-to-School Supply Shopping List

Laboratory testing on popular school supplies, such as markers, crayons, glue and spiral notebooks, revealed toxic chemicals such as lead, asbestos, phthalates and BTEX compounds, including benzene and toluene. Supplies were purchased across the country from a variety of big box stores, online retailers and arts and crafts stores.7

The results revealed asbestos in Playskool crayons; a three-ring binder from Dollar Tree contained high levels of phthalates; dry erase markers contained benzene; and two water bottles were recalled due to high levels of lead.8

Although alarming, the results actually demonstrate a reduction in the amount and level of dangerous chemicals used in the manufacture of children’s art and school supplies. According to Kara Cook-Schultz, toxics director at US PRIG and lead author of the report:9 "The good news is that when we were testing three years ago, all sorts of brands came back with asbestos. Now it's just this one."

Tests run in 2015 on major brands including Disney Mickey Mouse Clubhouse crayons and Nickelodeon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle crayons demonstrated trace amounts of asbestos fibers.

At the time, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) acknowledged asbestos trapped in wax may have limited inhalation danger, but noted children sometimes eat crayons and recommended parents avoid those brands as a precaution.10

Since then, most manufacturers have changed their process to eliminate even trace elements. After the report was released, a spokesperson for Dollar Tree stated all their products are independently tested and met legal and safety standards. Leap Year, the licensee of the product, also released a statement, saying:11

"We are aware of a report of trace amounts of asbestos being detected in a small amount of product testing conducted by a private group and are reviewing our own certified lab testing, which to our knowledge, passes all regulatory requirements and had no detectable asbestos.”

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Phthalates and Benzene Detected in Frequently Used School Supplies

Learning asbestos may be found in school supplies raises red flags, but it’s important to note the study also found phthalates, BTEX and lead in children’s products. Researchers found three-ring binders, made by Jot and sold at Dollar Tree, tested positive for phthalates, a chemical linked with asthma, obesity and reduced IQ.12

Phthalates are pervasive chemicals found in cosmetics, foods, household cleaners and plastic products. For the most part, they are added to plastics to make them durable and flexible, but since they are not strongly bound, they easily leach or migrate out of the products that contain them and into your environment.

Phthalates are endocrine disrupting chemicals and are “reasonably considered to be a human carcinogen.”13 What’s more, research suggests even minute amounts can cause significant harm, especially in children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is even asking parents to limit their children’s exposure to plastic chemicals such as phthalates and bisphenols, as these chemicals may damage your child’s health for years to come.14,15

The data also indicated BTEX chemicals such as benzene, xylene and toluene — all known carcinogenic chemicals — were found in dry erase markers made by Expos and The Board Dudes.16 These chemicals may be responsible for the sweet smell emanating from the markers.

According to the US PRIG:17 “Benzene is a probable carcinogen linked to dangerous disruptions in sexual reproduction, liver and kidney function and immune system functioning.”

Asbestos Is Still Legal, Dangerous and Use May Be Expanding

Asbestos is primarily linked to lung conditions, including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.18 Although many believe exposure is a thing of the past, it remains a deadly public health concern and may become an even larger one in the near future.

After a 10-year study of the effects, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered asbestos phased out in 1989.19 The asbestos industry then took the EPA to court and won a ruling that has essentially hamstrung the agency and its efforts to ban not only asbestos but other dangerous materials.

The chemical kills as many as 15,000 Americans each year from mesothelioma, asbestosis or other lung cancers.20 There is no safe level, as even brief exposure can cause mesothelioma. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) Action Fund analysis determined more than 8.2 million pounds of raw asbestos and waste products containing asbestos arrived in U.S. ports between 2006 and 2018.

Nearly 25 million American homes have asbestos in attic insulation and more can be found in pipes, flooring, wall shingles or ceiling finishes.21 In fact, it may show up in kitchen appliances, cement and some heat-resistant fabric and clothing. The bottom line is that while it is lethal, it continues to be legal and used in common consumer products.

What’s worse, the number of consumer products containing asbestos may soon grow, as the Trump administration has proposed a rule to open the door for asbestos to make a comeback. Prior to becoming president, Trump indicated his support of the chemical by suggesting asbestos could have prevented the collapse of the World Trade Center during the 9/11 attacks.22

New Proposed Rule May Increase Use of Asbestos in Home Products

The new proposed rule would require manufacturers to alert the EPA if they want to use asbestos in an array of building or electrical materials. However, Melanie Benesh, legislative attorney for EWG, and Thomas Burke, environmental epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, believe this may present a problem.23

A combination of previous omissions and the proposed rule may leave room for manufacturers to increase use of asbestos in new products. In December 2017, Brazil, the leading exporter of asbestos to the U.S., issued a nationwide ban on mining, use and commercialization of asbestos.24

Although lethal, the U.S. had imported 705 metric tons from overseas, 95 percent of which came from Brazil. This change places Russia in the unique position to become the largest exporter to the U.S., and Russian manufacturers see an opportunity to expand their market while Trump remains president.

Believing the continued support of the Trump administration will increase profits, one Russian company has gone so far as to stamp Trump’s face on their packaging, along with an “Approved by Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States” stamp.25

Burke believes the road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but the same applies to environmental protections, citing the gasoline additive MTBE used so fuel burns cleaner, saying:26

“This is now perhaps one of the most pervasive drinking water contaminants and groundwater contaminants in the U.S. That’s what happens when you use a narrow lens, when you have the blinders on. Asbestos is a bellwether issue for the protection of public health and chemical safety. It’s important to have a public health approach that looks at the full range of uses and potential risk to a population.”

Look for Safety Labeling in Your Art Supplies

To ensure your child’s safety, Cook-Schultz recommends parents check products for nontoxic labels or to check with manufacturers for the Children's Product Certificate,27 which guarantees the product was made in a factory adhering to CPSC standards.28 The US PRIG recommends:29

“Given that it is often legal to sell products containing these toxic substances, parents can do several things. First, look for the Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) ‘AP’ label, letting consumers know that the product is nontoxic.

If there is no AP label, look for the manufacturer's ‘Children's Product Certificate’ on the product, which assures parents that the product has been tested in a third-party laboratory under government specifications.

If neither of those labels is on the product, parents can reach out to the manufacturers and ask that they start using AP certification, or that they meet the requirements needed for a children's product certificate.”

ACMI’s “AP” seal indicates the product is certified nontoxic and a medical expert has evaluated the product and the ingredients, while the “CL” (caution label) seal indicates the ingredients are toxic or hazardous but may be used safely with appropriate caution.

Products bearing the CL seal should only be used by those who are able to read, understand and follow suggested safety precautions for handling the materials.30

You can also look for the California Proposition 65 label. This label indicates the product contains chemicals that have been shown to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. Even if only a trace amount is found, a warning is required by California and caution is recommended when using these products.31