Question: Are my kids’ crayons toxic? Which brand of crayons is safe?
Answer: Yes, it is very possible that one or more crayons in your child’s crayon box contain some detectable level of heavy metals when tested with an XRF instrument.
In fact – while I have not tested all brands (I have only tested samples from 5 different brands of crayon products) I haven’t yet found and tested a crayon brand that I can whole heartedly recommend and, as a result, I don’t let young children in my home play with any brand of crayons and haven’t for many years. [Specifically young children (like babies and toddlers) with any hand-to-mouth behavior or even older children with a potential for pica.]
About five years ago (c. 2013), when I was working with a nonprofit for childhood lead poisoning prevention, I found many sets of newly purchased crayons to have at least one color that tested positive for trace levels of heavy metals when tested with an XRF instrument.
The levels I have found in crayons to date have usually been in the single or double-digit parts per million (ppm). These levels were within all safety standards for toys intended for use by children, even the new Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) standards implemented and enforceable beginning in 2008 through 2010 and later. [Enforcement and standards were tiered as different industries were given time to comply with the new standards.]
Since that time I have tested many many more sets of crayons, with essentially the same results – depending on the specific colors in a set, one or more color in the set has some level (considered safe/ trace level) of a toxicant (lead, mercury, cadmium or arsenic.)
The problem with these standards when they are applied to crayons is that it is toy standard that is applied. In my opinion, crayons (because of the frequency with which they are ingested by the specific demographic targeted for their use) should be regulated by the much stricter standards used for FOOD toxicity safety – not toys.
Food toxicity standards for lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic (and other toxicants) are generally measured in single or double digit parts per BILLION not parts per MILLION. One part per million is equal to one thousand (1,000) parts per billion.
As an example, toys are considered lead-toxic if they have 90 parts per million (ppm) lead or more in the paint or coating, however drinking water is considered unsafe (by many scientists) if the lead (Pb) level is 5 parts per billion (ppb) or more [with the United States federal standard for lead-in-water toxicity being 15 ppb and above.]
The 2017 Crayola Crayons (pictured below) were tested with an XRF instrument and three of the colors tested positive for trace levels cadmium. Cadmium is considered toxic in children’s items at levels of 40 parts per million and above.
The level of cadmium found in the crayons pictured below (25 +/- 6 ppm, 27 +/- 7 ppm and 18 +/- 6 ppm cadmium respectively as shown in the photo) is not considered unsafe by current standards set for toys. If you applied food safety standards to these crayons these would likely be considered VERY TOXIC.
Please note I am NOT just talking about regular crayons. I have found toxicants (like lead and more frequently cadmium and even mercury!) in ALL TYPES of crayons intended for children – including products marketed as “food based” or “food grade” (for example beeswax based “organic” “all natural” type crayon products.). It is for this reason I discourage the use of crayons and of chalk for that matter. If I do buy chalk I generally stick with Ikea – as their chalk is much less likely to have unsafe levels of heavy metals.
#SaferChoices: For young children there are a lot of great non-toxic finger paint options and instead of crayons I favor early use of pencils and colored pencils (which are much less likely to be ingested than crayons!)
Point to note: years ago, when I first discovered the concern for toxicants in otherwise “safe” crayons, the XRF that I was using was loaned to me by the manufacturer of the specific XRF instrument I was using at the time. Upon publishing my findings about toxicants found in crayons, the XRF manufacturing company specifically asked me to retract (and unpublish) my findings on crayons saying that they felt they were inaccurate. They also said that if I did not unpublish my findings they would no longer grant me the free use of the instrument.
In response I told them that I had tested each crayon multiple times with a freshly calibrated instrument for a duration of up to three minutes per test and results were consistent and replicable and therefore valid and I stood by them …. however…
…given my work was lead-focused (and not cadmium and mercury focused), and given the instrument was crucial to my advocacy work, I did take down the post at the time and set aside all of the crayons that I had tested and included in that post with the intention of eventually having them tested by a lab that tests food products (to more formally confirm or refute my findings.)
Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to send those crayons to a lab for testing (lab testing is very expensive and I never found a sponsor interested in covering the cost – for each of the colors in a box!)
I later learned that the crayons I had tested at the time were made by a company that was also a customer of the company that made the XRF instrument – and I can only assume that pressure was put on the instrument manufacturer by the crayon manufacturer to ask me to take that post down.
Now that I answer to no one… here’s this post (sorry it took so long for me to share this information with y’all again! I’ve been a wee bit busy!) 😉
And for the record, I would love to test more crayons (all types, all brands) and I would also love to have a sponsor jump in and help me cover some independent lab testing to confirm any trace toxicant levels we find with an XRF instrument.
In the meantime my advice is to avoid crayons – and stick with non-toxic European art supplies whenever possible.
As always, please let me know if you have any questions. Thank you for reading and following. The most important thing you can do to support my independent consumer goods testing and lead poisoning prevention advocacy work is to share my posts with your friends on social media. The second most important thing would be to donate in support of my work if you are in a position to help in that way! Thank you.
Note: XRF detection limits for consumer goods (when using an instrument specifically designed for testing consumer goods, with the appropriate software module) is down to the level of single digit parts per million (ppm.) A “non-detect” (or negative/ ND) with an XRF instrument could still allow for the possibility that a crayon (or any other consumer good) is positive for lead in ppb (parts per billion.) So the crayons in the lower half of the photo with the caption “Below this line; NO lead, cadmium or mercury” are only negative/ND within the testing capacity of the XRF and could technically still be positive for those limits in ppb [as with all items I test and report the XRF test results for.]