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Healthy Home Basics - Art and Craft Materials

The safest home in the world can be made unhealthy in minutes if a member of the family practices an art or craft that emits hazardous substances into the air. In some cases this is obvious, as when oil painters fill the house with the odor of turpentine. But there are other projects that appear safe, but which can ruin air quality. Examples include candlemaking, polymer clay crafting, using glue guns, working with felt-tip markers, using adhesives, or drawing with chalk and pastels.


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CANDLES. Heating wax to make candles causes some of the wax to decompose and emit hazardous substances. That "hot wax" odor includes acrolein gas, formaldehyde, wax fumes (tiny wax particles that can get deep in your lungs), and many other chemicals. 


Burning the candles adds literally hundreds of small amounts of toxic chemicals to the air. Even more toxic emissions are created if the candle is painted or dyed or contains potpourri or essential oil fragrances. It doesn’t matter if the candle is made from paraffin, soy oil, or bees wax. All candles emit the toxic products of incomplete combustion. Complete combustion of hydrocarbon substances releases only carbon dioxide and water vapor, but the flame is an almost invisible blue. A yellow candle flame is caused by the glowing soot and other particles created by incomplete combustion. Occasional candle use only damages air quality slightly, but heavy or daily use should be avoided.

Some candles with stiff wicks used to be made with fine lead wires hidden in their wicks. Burning these candles was shown to raise lead dust levels on floors and surfaces above the HUD safe limit. The Consumer Product Safety Commission banned these wicks, but it is hard to enforce the ban on imported products. Buyer beware.

POLYMER CLAYS are brightly colored, pliable polyvinyl chloride plastics designed to be hand-molded and fired in kitchen ovens. They are popular home-craft materials. Like most vinyl plastics, they contain phthalate plasticizers. These phthalates are emitted from the clays when they are hardened in the ovens. Accidental over firing can release cancer-causing vinyl chloride and other highly toxic chemicals. 

GLUE GUNS also emit phthalate plasticizers because the "glue" is actually a vinyl plastic material that is heated by the gun and the phthalates volatilize.


ADHESIVES such as rubber cement and model-airplane glues contain toxic solvents. Epoxy glues also may release ammonia or amine curing agents. Superglues emit vapors of cyanoacrylate.

FELT-TIP PENS used for art projects or white-board marking usually contain solvents whose vapors get airborne during use. Even pens that are labeled "nontoxic" often contain about 10% solvents. It’s safer to use plain white chalk on a board. Chalk releases calcium carbonate dust, but this dust is not toxic and only may cause problems for asthmatics who react to all dusts.

ARTISTS PASTELS looks like chalk, but this dust is not safe like blackboard white chalk. Pastels create extremely fine dusts (some in nanoparticle size) which contain pigments. Soft pastels for adult artists even may contain lead, cadmium, chromium, manganese, mercury and other toxic metal pigments. The dust from pastels is so fine that it will pass through ordinary vacuum cleaner filters and may remain indefinitely in house dust.

RECOMMENDATIONS: The best way to protect family members from the dusts, fumes, and vapors from art and craft materials is to build a separate studio equipped with special ventilation. Barring this, homeowners should ask art-material manufacturers for material safety data sheets (MSDS) and other technical data so they can choose products which do not release significant amounts of toxic substances.


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The Healthy House Institute (HHI), a for-profit educational LLC, provides the information on as a free service to the public. The intent is to disseminate accurate, verified and science-based information on creating healthy home environments.


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Healthy Home Basics - Art and Craft Materials:  Created on August 19th, 2009.  Last Modified on December 4th, 2009


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About Monona Rossol

Monona Rossol is the author of The Artist's Complete Health and Safety Guide and the founder of ACTS (Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety), a not-for-profit corporation which is dedicated to providing health and safety services to the arts.



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