NEWS: The Environmental Working Group reported that they found asbestos in four brands of children’s crayons. Does this news posit a significant health danger to kids?

In mid-2015, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Action Fund’s “Asbestos Nation” campaign announced that they had found “deadly asbestos fibers” in four brands of children’s crayons. EWG reported that they purchased 28 brands of crayons at two national chains (Party City and Dollar Tree) between February and May of 2015 and sent them to an independent company (Scientific Analytical Institute) to test them for asbestos using transmission electron microscopy (TEM).

According to EWG’s report, asbestos was “detected and confirmed” in four brands of crayons, all of them manufactured in China: Amscan Crayons, Disney Mickey Mouse Clubhouse 10 Jumbo Crayons, Nickelodeon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Crayons, and Saban’s Power Rangers Super Megaforce 10 Jumbo Crayons.

Asbestos is composed of long, thin mineral fibers that are too small to be visible to the naked eye and are easily inhaled. Asbestos was commonly used in insulation material in the 1960s and 1970s, until exposure to asbestos fibers was found to lead to a number of pulmonary issues, including scarring and inflammation of the lungs, breathing impairment, and respiratory diseases such as lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the lungs and abdomen). Asbestos has since been banned for many uses in the United States and other countries. Naturally, therefore, EWG’s news about asbestos in crayons, was of great concern to many parents, just as it was back in 2000 when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that they had tested eight brands of crayons and found asbestos in three of them (Crayola, Prang, and Rose Art). And the main question raised back then is still pertinent now: Do these asbestos-containing crayons actually pose any significant health danger to children who might use them?

Asbestos is not a deadly poison, the mere touch or taste of which will prove fatal: it’s a set of silicate minerals that can prove harmful if it’s in a fibrous form that’s breathed in (generally over an extended period of time):

Asbestos is the name for a group of naturally occurring minerals that separate into strong, very fine fibers. The fibers are heat-resistant and extremely durable, and, because of these qualities, asbestos has become very useful in construction and industry. In the home it may or may not pose a health hazard to the occupants, depending on its condition. When it can be crushed by hand pressure or the surface is not sealed, to prevent small pieces from escaping, the material is considered FRIABLE. In this condition fibers can be released and pose a health risk. However, as long as the surface is stable and well-sealed against the release of its fibers and not damaged, the material is considered safe until damaged in some way.

Asbestos is only dangerous when it’s deteriorated to the point where its tiny fibers can be released into the air and inhaled. If the material is solid (in appearance and to touch) and maintained in good condition, it presents no problem.

As we’ve noted in other articles about similar findings regarding consumer products, there’s a difference between “a dangerous substance was found in this product” and “a dangerous level of a substance was found in this product.” We’re all regularly exposed to many different highly toxic substances (everything from mercury to arsenic) through both human and natural processes, but not necessarily at levels that pose any appreciable health dangers to us. The nature of such substances, the quantities in which they’re present, the forms they’re found in, and the manners in which we’re exposed to them are all important factors in determining whether they constitute a significant health threat.

When the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CSPC) followed up on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer‘s article about asbestos in crayons in 2000 with their own analysis, they categorized the risk of asbestos exposure from crayons to be “extremely low” — in large part because trace amounts of asbestos encased in a waxy substance such as crayons are not friable (easily crumbled or reduced to powder) and therefore pose little risk of being inhaled or absorbed:

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CSPC) staff examined crayons from several different boxes from the three companies to determine whether asbestos was present, evaluated the potential for exposure to children, and evaluated the potential risk.

Based on the results of the testing and evaluation, the staff concludes that the risk a child would be exposed to the fibers through inhalation or ingestion of crayons containing asbestos and transitional fibers is extremely low. No fibers were found in the air during a simulation of a child vigorously 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.

Even the Asbestos Nation’s 2015 press release noted that the answer to this question is still up in the air:

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.

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.

Nonetheless, the CPSC opined back in 2000 that even if “the risk is extremely low … as a precaution, crayons should not contain these fibers.” That agency has not yet, however, implemented a requirement that crayons sold in the U.S. be free of any asbestos contamination.

However one regards this news, the bottom line is that other than avoiding crayons altogether, there’s not really much concerned parents can do about this issue other than to campaign that the federal government “do more to monitor routes of possible asbestos contamination in all consumer products.”