A Toxic Substance Has Been Found in Crayons Again

A recent detection of asbestos highlights the challenge of keeping products for kids safe online.

A box of crayons
Matt Rourke / AP

Crayons are generally an innocuous children’s product, but a consumer-advocacy group has discovered a dangerous substance in one brand. In a newly released report on 27 back-to-school products, the United States Public Interest Research Group, or PIRG, revealed that some green crayons in packs by Playskool, available at Dollar Tree, Amazon, and eBay, contained a toxic chemical with a deadly history: asbestos. The substance is known to cause mesothelioma and lung cancer, and is suspected to contribute to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney cancer.

This sort of testing and detection of toxic chemicals is nothing new. Last year, the U.S. PIRG found lead in fidget spinners, and in 2015, the Environmental Working Group found trace amounts of asbestos in crayons. But the new incident highlights a hard-to-nail-down problem in the increasing availability of products on the internet: Enforcing bans with such disparate points of sale is an incredible challenge, and can make keeping kids safe a logistical nightmare.

In their investigation, the U.S. PIRG discovered that two other children’s products containing toxic materials were currently available: a three-ring binder containing phthalates, a plastic that is being investigated for suspected links to asthma and birth defects; and markers containing benzene, a common chemical that’s known to cause leukemia and potentially other types of cancers. The reason these products are available, says Kara Cook-Schultz, a co-writer for the report, is that there aren’t strict laws that protect Americans from every potentially dangerous chemical. Benzene is allowed in concentrations less than 5 percent; asbestos is allowed in concentrations less than 1 percent.

To put it into perspective, says Andrew Stolbach, a medical toxicologist for Johns Hopkins Medicine, “asbestos is a rock that’s shaped like a fiber. And it sounds really cool! You know, you spray it onto houses and make them fireproof. But as we know, that went very wrong.” The mineral, which has been used in the United States for hundreds of years in insulation, car parts, cement, and more, was found to be harmful in the early-20th century. It has been banned in 55 countries.

The United States is not one of these countries. In the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency introduced regulations on the import and use of asbestos, and while its use has been significantly curtailed, it has only been entirely banned from six product categories. And the rules around the chemical are likely to change under Donald Trump’s administration, which introduced a proposal in June that would overturn a ban on new uses of asbestos and institute something called a “Significant New Use Rule.” This rule would allow the development of new products containing asbestos, after the EPA evaluates the new use for any potential safety concerns. The EPA contends that its proposal would protect consumers by requiring companies to receive approval before manufacturing or importing asbestos-containing products. Advocacy groups and former EPA officials, however, have erupted in opposition to new health hazards.

A 2015 study estimates that about 9.9 million people a year are still killed from asbestos poisoning globally, with the United States leading the charge among countries with good data: At least 2,500 Americans die from the effects of exposure every year.

It may seem odd that crayons would contain asbestos, given that the chemical is typically found in housing-construction materials. But the asbestos isn’t a component of a crayon so much as it is a byproduct of processing talc, a widely available material that’s also found in cosmetics, baby powder, and deodorant. “Talc is mined in places where asbestos is co-occurring,” says Cook-Schultz. “So what you have to do is refine the talc, and then you test it, and then you put the talc in your product, your crayon, your makeup. But some of these companies aren’t doing enough of a process to refine the asbestos out of the products.” A lot of talc mines and refineries are in China, says Cook-Schultz. And while there are refineries that adequately remove traces of asbestos, regulations are not as stringent as they are in the United States.

When asbestos is found in products, it’s often found in trace amounts, which, Stolbach says, isn’t dangerous for most people. In that case, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, or CPSC, might issue a voluntary recall to the manufacturers and retailers with the product on its shelves. The U.S. PIRG has requested a recall of the crayons, which the CPSC has not yet issued.

But Cook-Schultz says there’s still a danger in accumulation: The trace amount found in a crayon or a face powder might not be harmful on its own, but exposure from enough products could put consumers at risk. In a statement, Playskool stood by the safety of its products. “We are currently re-verifying that they are safe and free of any asbestos, as well as requesting a review of PIRG’s testing methods.”

Online retailers, from Amazon to eBay to many smaller shops not based in the United States, present an additional challenge to managing consumer’s exposure to toxic chemicals. Because essentially anyone can sell on Amazon and eBay, resulting in huge numbers of sellers and products available there and on the web at large, it’s difficult for the CPSC to ensure that products containing asbestos or other chemicals are removed.

“It may be riskier for parents to buy products online because international sellers may not meet the same safety standards that the U.S. has in place,” says Morgan Statt, a health-and-safety investigator for ConsumerSafety.org, a consumer-advocacy group.

“That’s something we are concerned about,” Cook-Schultz says. “That you can buy stuff online but not in stores, and that there are products you can’t find in stores but may be able find on Amazon or Ebay. The CPSC does spot-check, but there’s a lot of websites and places to buy things. So this is a new area that we’re grappling with how to regulate.”

Stolbach agrees. “We’ve relied on imminent regulation to protect us from nasty things that have been in products before, and regulations have been a real success story,” he said. “It does worry me that consumption has become decentralized. We do more buying from places with relaxed regulations, and we will be less likely to know what is in our stuff.”

To ensure safety, Cook-Schultz recommends that parents check product images for the AP nontoxic label, which appears on art supplies like crayons and glue sticks. (The contaminated Playskool crayons did not have this label, according to Cook-Schultz.) Or parents can check with manufacturers for a Children’s Product Certificate, which guarantees that the product was made in a factory that adheres to CPSC standards.

In a statement, eBay said that it maintains a recalled-items policy and hazardous-goods policy to keep consumers informed. As for dangerous products at Dollar Tree, the company wrote in a statement that it “has since re-verified that each of the listed products successfully passed inspection and testing.” Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.

As far as dangerous products go, crayons aren’t the worst. The most likely mode of asbestos exposure from a crayon for a child is if they eat it, and that’s less dangerous than inhaling it, Stolbach says. Still, it’s safer for children to avoid contact with it. And, Stolbach adds, “Why do we have it in our life? There’s no reason for crayons to have asbestos. But it shouldn’t be something that keeps you up at night.”