When you catch a conversation about asbestos, you might think it’s about health problems from at least 30 years ago. You’re not alone. Many Americans assume asbestos has been banned or fallen out of use. And for good reason. It’s a known carcinogen that kills up to 15,000 Americans a year.
The harsh reality is, asbestos is still legal. And it’s everywhere.
When EWG Action Fund launched its Asbestos Nation campaign to raise awareness about today’s asbestos threat, we looked beyond well-known hazards – vehicle brakes and building materials.
We didn’t expect to find asbestos in crayons. But it’s there.[p][/p]
According to tests commissioned by EWG Action Fund, samples of four brands of children’s crayons and two kids’ crime scene fingerprint kits contain deadly asbestos fibers. (Article is below graphic)
The test results make a scary picture: a child exposed to asbestos is 3.5 more likely than a 25-year-old to develop mesothelioma, a lung disease, that is only caused by asbestos, because of the long lag time between exposure and diagnosis, according to the U.K. Committee on Carcinogenicity
“Asbestos in toys poses an unacceptable risk to children, today as it did in 2000 and 2007, the last time tests found the deadly substance in these children’s products,” Dr. Philip Landrigan, professor of pediatrics and preventive medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, told EWG Action Fund. Landrigan is an internationally- recognized expert in the area of asbestos and other toxic materials and a former senior adviser to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on children’s environmental health.
With children due to return to school soon, it’s vital that we give you the information you need to protect your children.
Samples of four brands of children’s crayons and two kids’ crime scene fingerprint kits contained deadly asbestos fibers, according to tests commissioned by EWG Action Fund.
The toys, purchased at national retail chains or through online retailers, were tested by two government-certified laboratories, using state-of-the-art equipment. The results are significant because even trace exposure to asbestos can cause cancer and other fatal lung disease.
The tests found asbestos in four of the 28 boxes of crayons tested, several marketed under the names of popular fantasy characters Mickey Mouse, Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Two of the 21 crime scene fingerprint kits were tainted with asbestos.
According to package labels, all the crayons and toys that contained asbestos were made in China and imported to the U.S. It is unclear whether the companies whose names or trademarked characters appear on the packages are responsible for, or had any role in, the manufacturing of the products or whether they merely licensed the use of their trademarks.
Federal health authorities have known since 2000 that crayons can be contaminated with asbestos. That year the Seattle Post Intelligencer commissioned tests detecting asbestos in three popular brands of crayons (Schneider 2000). The Consumer Product Safety Commission conducted its own confirmation tests on crayons and concluded that the risk of exposure was “extremely low” but that “as a precaution, crayons should not contain these [asbestos] fibers.” The commission said it would “monitor children’s crayons to ensure they do not present a hazard,” but it has not banned or regulated asbestos in crayons, toys or other children’s products (CPSC 2000). Seven years later asbestos was found in the fingerprint powder of a similar crime scene kit (ADAO 2007).
EWG Action Fund’s detection of asbestos in children’s toys renewed calls for action. “Asbestos in toys poses an unacceptable risk to children, today as it did in 2000 and 2007, the last time tests found the deadly substance in these children’s products,” said Dr. Philip Landrigan, professor of pediatrics and preventive medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Landrigan is an internationally-recognized asbestos expert and former senior adviser to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on children’s environmental health. “Clearly some toy manufacturers haven’t done enough to protect children and others from asbestos in consumer products. Therefore, it’s high time the federal government bans asbestos in consumer products.”
Contaminated crayons could release microscopic asbestos fibers as children use them. According to Crayola, the world’s largest crayon manufacturer, by age 10 the typical American child wears down 730 crayons (Crayola 2004). As every parent knows, children sometimes eat crayons; health authorities and asbestos experts are divided on whether ingestion of asbestos-contaminated crayons is a health hazard. The Consumer Product Safety Commission maintains that the asbestos fibers are embedded in the crayon wax and that a child’s body temperature is not warm enough to melt ingested wax and free the fibers.
In the case of the crime scene kits, people could inhale airborne asbestos fibers. Both products contained a straw or brush so that children could remove excess powder. Instructions for the EduScience Deluxe Forensics Lab Kit say: “Put a small amount of dusting powder on the brush, use the blower to blow on the brush gently and then run the brush softly over the fingerprinted spot. Use the blower to blow off excess powder on top.”
Although the crime scene kits carried safety warnings that choking on small parts is dangerous, none cautioned of possible asbestos contamination.
Asbestos fibers lodged in the lungs or other organs can cause grave, often fatal, illnesses whose symptoms are not evident for decades after exposure. If children are exposed when young, there is more time for asbestos-related illness to develop later in life.
The asbestos found in the tested products was most likely a contaminant of talc used as a binding agent in the crayons and in powder in the crime scene fingerprint kits (SAI 2015). Asbestos is often found in mines alongside talc deposits.
EWG Action Fund purchased the crayons that tested positive for asbestos between February and May 2015 at two national chains, Party City and Dollar Tree, in a suburban county near San Francisco. The fund ordered the two crime scene toys that contained asbestos through Amazon.com and ToysRUs.com.
Scientific Analytical Institute of Greensboro, N.C., tested the products for asbestos using transmission electron microscopy, or TEM, the most precise method available. A second analytical laboratory examined all samples that tested positive.
Table 1 summarizes test results for children’s products that contained asbestos. (See Table 2 in the Appendix for results for all products tested.)
1 – Product names may be licensed and do not necessarily reflect the name of the manufacturer.
Source: EWG Action Fund, from Transmission Electron Microscopy tests by Scientific Analytical Institute.
The two crime scene kits appeared to contain higher concentrations of asbestos than the crayon samples. The kits’ loose powders pose a greater inhalation risk than fibers caught in crayon. A single crayon or crime scene powder sample could contain 1 million or more microscopic asbestos fibers.
Inhalation of asbestos fibers can cause mesothelioma, an incurable malignancy that attacks the lining of the lungs or other organs; asbestosis, which makes breathing excruciatingly painful and can lead to death from heart failure; and cancer of the lungs and other organs.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, says:
There is no “safe” level of asbestos exposure for any type of asbestos fiber. Asbestos exposures as short in duration as a few days have caused mesothelioma in humans. Every occupational exposure to asbestos can cause injury or disease; every occupational exposure to asbestos contributes to the risk of getting an asbestos-related disease (OSHA 2015).
The EPA has determined that one form of asbestos fiber (Libby Amphibole) poses a health concern when there is one or more fiber per 11,000 cubic centimeters of air (less than half of a cubic foot) on an ongoing basis (EPA 2014). OSHA has set a less stringent workplace rule of 0.1 airborne asbestos fiber per cubic centimeter of indoor air over eight hours, not to exceed one fiber per cubic centimeter in any half-hour period (OSHA 2014).
In 2010, the Collegium Ramazzini, an international society of doctors and scientists that examines critical issues in occupational and environmental medicine, said:
The scientific community is in overwhelming agreement that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos. Moreover, there is no evidence of a threshold level below which there is no risk of mesothelioma (Collegium Ramazzini 2010).
Most of the estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Americans who die each year of asbestos-related disease (EWG Action Fund 2015) are adults exposed on the job, but a minority of cases involve people exposed as children, usually by contact with an adult family member who inadvertently brought asbestos fibers home on clothing. No cases have been documented of victims who became ill from playing with asbestos-tainted crayons or toys, but the presence of asbestos in such products was discovered only recently. Decades may pass before disease symptoms develop. It is unlikely, if not impossible that scientists can definitively determine how someone who did not work with asbestos was exposed to the lethal material.
Children exposed to asbestos may be at greater risk than adults. In 2013, the United Kingdom’s Committee on Carcinogenicity, which advises the British government on substances likely to cause cancer, concluded that it was not possible to say whether children were inherently more susceptible to asbestos-caused diseases. It said that children had an increased lifetime risk because of the long lag time between exposure and mesothelioma symptoms. It concluded:
Because of differences in life expectancy, for a given dose of asbestos the lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma is predicted to be about 3.5 times greater for a child first exposed at age 5 compared to an adult first exposed at age 25 and about 5 times greater when compared to an adult first exposed at age 30 (U.K. Committee on Carcinogenicity 2013).
Earlier Asbestos-Toy Alerts
EWG Action Fund’s findings come 15 years after the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission was alerted to asbestos in crayons, and eight years after it learned that asbestos had been found in a toy crime scene kit.
- In 2000, tests commissioned by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer found asbestos in crayons sold by Crayola, Prang and Rose Art. The source was eventually traced to a now-closed talc mine in upstate New York (Schneider 2000). In response, the commission conducted its own tests, which concluded that the risk was “extremely low” but asked the crayon industry to stop using talc in its products. A commission staff report said those three brands complied. EWG Action Fund’s tests included eight samples of Crayola crayons, none of which contained asbestos or fibrous talc. Prang and Rose Art crayons were not tested.
- In 2007, tests commissioned by the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, a nonprofit group, found asbestos in a toy fingerprint exam kit licensed by CBS under the name of its dramatic series, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The kit was made in China (ADAO 2007). In 2009, the asbestos disease group settled a class-action suit against CBS and major retailers, which agreed to remove the toy from store shelves and give refunds to purchasers (Public Justice 2009). The group’s 2007 tests also found asbestos in one brand of modeling clay. EWG Action Fund tested two other brands of modeling clay; neither contained asbestos.
The Post-Intelligencer quoted Dr. Michael Harbut, director of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine in Detroit, as saying, “Levels of asbestos exposure that would do minimal harm to an adult can cause serious disease in a child after the latency period has run its course” (Schneider 2000).
“It’s up to the industry to prove it’s safe, not the other way around. I don’t believe that products are innocent until proven guilty,” Dr. Michael McCann, a chemist and industrial hygienist who founded and directed New York’s Center for Safety in the Arts, told the newspaper (Schneider 2000).
Despite the results of the 2000 and 2007 tests, the CPSC has not implemented a ban or regulations to require that crayons and toys are free of talc possibly contaminated with asbestos.
The State of Connecticut bans asbestos in children’s products, including toys and other articles marketed for children under the age 16 (Connecticut 2008). No other states have such bans.
In August 2000, the commission responded to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer investigation by conducting its own tests on the three brands of crayons that had previously tested positive for asbestos (CPSC 2000). Using polarized light microscopy – a method less sensitive than the transmission electron microcopy used in EWG Action Fund’s tests – the commission found “trace amounts of anthophyllite asbestos and larger amounts of other fibers” in Crayola and Prang crayons. It did not find asbestos in Rose Art crayons. The commission concluded:
The risk a child would be exposed to the fibers through inhalation of ingestion of crayons containing asbestos and transitional fibers is extremely low. No fibers were found in the air during a simulation of a child rigorously coloring with a crayon for half an hour. The risk of exposure by eating crayons is also extremely low because the fibers are embedded in the crayon wax and will pass through the child’s body.
Although CPSC staff determined that the risk is extremely low, the staff believes that as a precaution, crayons should not contain these fibers. CPSC staff asked the industry to reformulate crayons using substitute ingredients. Binney and Smith [Crayola] and Dixon Ticonderoga [Prang] agreed to reformulate within a year to eliminate talc. Rose Art indicated that they stopped using talc in 90% of their crayons about 15 months ago and will reformulate the remaining small percentage of crayons made with talc.
CPSC will continue to monitor children’s crayons to ensure they do not present a hazard.
The tests EWG Action Fund commissioned show that neither voluntary action by companies nor the commission’s pledge to monitor crayons, have ensured that children’s products are free of asbestos.
The Art and Creative Materials Institute, which describes itself as “an international association of over 200 art, craft and creative material manufacturers which seeks to promote safety in art and creative products,” has a program to certify that crayons and other products are “non-toxic and meet voluntary standards for quality and performance.” (ACMI 2015) But in 2000 the institute told the Post-Intelligencer that it did not test for asbestos in crayons. Today, its website does not address the issue. None of the crayons that tested positive for asbestos in EWG Action Fund’s inquiry carried the institute’s safety certification seal.
EWG Action Fund’s tests were done under the direction of Sean Fitzgerald of the Scientific Analytical Institute in Greensboro, N.C. Fitzgerald’s lab also conducted toy tests for the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. While at another lab, he conducted follow-up tests confirming the Post-Intelligencer’s report of asbestos in crayons.
Fitzgerald told EWG Action Fund that he was shocked by the results of its tests:
The new finding of asbestos in fingerprint kits made in China was surprising to me. And even though I knew of the infamous finding in 2000 of asbestos in crayons, eventually linked to the use of asbestos-contaminated talc from upstate New York, I was shocked at the results. The asbestos found in this round of testing seems to have originated from abroad, unlike the domestic-sourced talc found in crayons 15 years ago. In my opinion, this testing confirms that products sold off the shelf may well still contain some level of asbestos. Further, although this testing found asbestos primarily in imported products by way of contamination from talc, domestic products should also be considered suspect (SAI 2015).
“Asbestos” is a legal and industrial classification for six unique types of durable, insoluble silica fibers. EWG Action Fund’s testing found three types of asbestos, probably all from talc:
- Tremolite, found in every crayon sample and crime scene fingerprint kit that tested positive for asbestos, is rarely mined on its own but often contaminates other minerals such as talc and vermiculite.
- Chrysotile, found in one crayon sample and one crime scene kit, is the most naturally abundant type of asbestos and the most widely used commercially. Although some studies suggest that it is less toxic than tremolite, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says it should be treated with the same level of concern as other types of asbestos (NIOSH 2011).
- Anthophyllite, found in one crime scene toy and one crayon, is one of the rarest types of asbestos. However, studies have confirmed that exposure to anthophyllite fibers can cause mesothelioma (Karjalanien 1994).
Many other mineral fibers that fall outside the legal definition of asbestos have similar physical qualities and pose related health hazards. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention refers to these fibers as Elongate Mineral Particles, or EMPs. These particles appear to cause asbestos-like diseases (NIOSH 2011).
Besides confirming asbestos in four crayon samples, SAI lab detected “fibrous talc” but no asbestos fibers in two more crayon samples. These results were not sent to a second lab for confirmation. Fibrous talc is more likely than other types of talc to contain asbestos-like fibers. There is some concern that single fibers that break off from these talc accumulations could behave like asbestos fibers in the body.
Health Hazards Associated with Talc
Geologically, talc and asbestos can be formed from the same parent rock. In many regions, talc deposits are contaminated with asbestos fibers. Several studies have found asbestos-related disease in people who mined or worked with talc, but it remains unclear whether this is due to asbestos contamination of talc or to the talc itself.
Peer-reviewed studies have found an association between the use of talc powder and both ovarian and lung cancer (Terry 2013, Kim 2013). Juries have awarded millions of dollars in damages to women who used personal care talcum powders and later developed mesothelioma.
Last March, a panel of New Jersey judges upheld a $1.6 million award to a 47-year-old man with mesothelioma who had been exposed to asbestos as a child by contact with his father, who worked for a company that supplied talc for Old Spice and Desert Flower talcum powder (Bricketto 2015). A month later, a Los Angeles jury awarded $13 million to a 73-year-old woman who contracted mesothelioma from asbestos-contaminated talcum powder manufactured by Colgate-Palmolive Co. (Melley 2015)
Because of its widespread use in consumer products, the purity of commercial talc is a critical issue. Talc is an extremely useful material. It absorbs moisture, oils and odors, is added to personal care products and pharmaceuticals and is used as a food additive and processing aid. It is the basic ingredient in some body and food powders, is used as a filler for pills and is dusted on candy and used as a processing aid in producing olive oil. In crayons, talc is used as a binding agent. Some companies, including Crayola, the market leader, specify that no talc can be used in their products (Crayola [undated]).
The federal Food and Drug Administration specifies that food-grade talc cannot contain asbestos, but the analytical techniques used by scientific labs are not always able to detect small concentrations. The FDA analyzed cosmetic-grade talc for asbestos contamination in 2009 and 2010 and found no fibers (FDA 2014). However, the study did not include samples from all talc producers and did not use a method that could reliably detect small numbers of fibers, even though they could pose a health concern.