Skip to main content

University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Health and Safety in Arts Education: Purchasing

Health, safety, and source reduction information for artists and art educators, including theater arts.

Purchasing Considerations


This section provides sources of information on purchasing art and craft supplies, including safety data sheets on commonly used art education supplies.

Some materials contain known hazardous materials such as asbestos and heavy metals. Some of the compounds in art supplies are known human carcinogens, presenting risks to all but especially to young children. Labeling of art supplies is inconsistent, so hazardous ingredients aren't always known.

People tend to assume that once an item is on the market, it is considered reliable and safe to use. Additionally, consumers rely upon warning labels to help interpret the ingredients, hazards, and risks. Many consumers do not have the appropriate background knowledge to interpret the chemical and industrial language required to make informed purchases. Some barriers to making better purchasing decisions include:

  • Awareness of risks
  • Knowledge of substitutes
  • Ingredients
  • Vocabulary (see the Definitions section of this guide for assistance with terminology)
  • Label information
  • Governmental requirements and enforcement

Finding safer alternatives

The Labeling of Hazardous Art Materials Act, signed into law in 1988, requires that all art materials be reviewed to determine the potential for causing a chronic hazard, and that appropriate warning labels be put on those art materials found to pose a chronic hazard. In summary, this law applies to many many children's toys as well as art supplies. The Consumer Product Safety Commission's Art and Craft Safety Guide discusses this act in depth. Examples of the various labels are provided by the Art & Creative Materials Institute.

Safety data sheets provide invaluable resources including ingredients, identification of any associated hazards, potential health effects (immediate and delayed), first-aid measures, fire-fighting measures, handling and storage, exposure controls, physical and chemical properties, stability and reactivity, U.S. federal and Canadian regulations, and more. For example, Elmer's has a list of safety data sheets for a wide variety of its products.

The Art & Creative Materials Institute provides certification criteria for supplies used in art education through its Web site. Manufacturers who participate are identified with a certification symbol on their products. Art supply labels are not consistent and the use of this certification is defined by a stringent set of criteria that proves consumer friendly.

Purchasing decisions should not be based upon economic decisions alone, nor should purchases be based upon traditionally requested materials. Health and safety issues, as well as long-term economic issues, should motivate environmental considerations. If you avoid purchasing hazardous materials, you eliminate the need to manage them as hazardous waste later.

Suggested substitutions

Avoid Substitution suggestions
Dry clay, powdered paint, and wheat paste, which may create inhalation hazards Wet or liquid products, and if dry, mix before your students are in the room
Rubber cement, turpentine, paint thinners, and solvent-based markers Water-based glues, paints, and washable markers
Cold-water and metal or commercial dyes Vegetable and plant-based dyes
Papier-mache Black and white newspaper or recycled paper, and flour/water paste

Other purchasing considerations

  • Avoid purchasing more product than you need.
  • Practice source reduction and waste reduction. Consider packaging as well as the product itself.
  • Compare cost of the purchase price to the product's quality and life expectancy, as well as to the cost of proper disposal of waste generated from the product.
  • Give preference to slightly more expensive items if the quality will allow for much longer use or less replacement.

Following these strategies can save educational facilities money on supplies, which shifts funding from supplies back to education.

Essential Links