Parents all over the United States have a fresh reason to worry about back to school season this year, as news spread that asbestos had been found in some brands of children’s crayons.
But is the news true? And if it is, is it really a reason to worry?
Here’s what everybody needs to know.
In 2000, a Seattle newspaper published an article claiming that their independent lab analysis had discovered asbestos in several brands of children’s crayons. The manufacturer of one of the brands, Crayola, denied the claims and commissioned their own study, which seemed to contradict the newspaper’s study.
The controversy prompted the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to conduct its own study. The study found trace amounts of asbestos in two Crayola colors and one Prang color. It further established, however, that the quantity of asbestos present was “scientifically insignificant.”
The same study found larger amounts of another fiber that is similar in appearance to asbestos fibers. These similar fibers may have caused confusion in the original study by the newspaper. The CPSC concluded that none of the crayons posed a substantial risk to children.
After the initial controversy, the question of asbestos in crayons died down until 2015, when the Environmental Working Group (EWG) announced the results of a study finding “deadly asbestos fibers” in several brands of children’s crayons.
This news, however, flew under the radar, perhaps because of the CPSC’s earlier findings in 2000 that even if asbestos were present in the crayons, it did not pose a substantial risk to children’s health.
So why is asbestos in crayons in the news again this month? In August, the Washington Post published an article announcing that the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) Education Fund had tested crayons for asbestos again, and found one color in one brand (Playskool) to still contain asbestos.
Asbestos rightfully concerns parents, because it can lead to lung cancer and mesothelioma if inhaled or ingested. But here’s the science behind why you may not want to take that box of crayons back to the store just yet.
To understand whether the issue of asbestos in crayons is a cause for significant concern, it helps to understand exactly what asbestos is.
Asbestos is a natural fibrous mineral composed of silicon and oxygen. Because it is fire-resistant, it was commonly used in insulation and other building materials prior to the 1970s.
Asbestos is not poisonous or harmful to touch, but when the fibers get into the air and are breathed in, they irritate the lungs and can cause scarring. This can lead to permanent, debilitating shortness of breath, called asbestosis. In addition, asbestos can cause mesothelioma and lung cancer.
While inhalation is the most common cause of health problems due to asbestos, when ingested it can also cause cancers in the abdominal cavity.
It’s unlikely that asbestos in crayons would become airborne in order for children to breathe it in, so the most likely cause of problems would be if children eat them. And young children are known for eating crayons.
However, asbestos typically only causes harm when exposure through ingestion meets three criteria:
By these measures, a child would have to ingest large quantities of asbestos on multiple occasions over a long period of time to exhibit problems. While it’s possible to have a chronic crayon-eater in a classroom, the CPSC has determined that the quantity of asbestos in crayons is so small as to be “insignificant.”
For these reasons, it’s unlikely that there is reason to be concerned. A bigger problem would be if your child’s school tested positive for lead in the water–a reality for families in some school districts, especially where the buildings are older with old plumbing. Ask your school whether they’ve conducted testing and, if not, encourage them to do so. You’ll rest easier.
You can also learn more about asbestos myths versus reality here.