Some children's crayons - marketed with colorful characters such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers and Mickey Mouse - and play crime lab kits contain cancer-causing, lung damaging asbestos fibers, according to a report released Wednesday.
The report, commissioned by the environmental nonprofit Environmental Working Group Action Fund, found that four brands of children's crayons out of 28 boxes tested and two of 21 children fingerprint kits contained asbestos.
All of the products that tested positive for asbestos were made in China and imported to the United States.
"Asbestos in toys poses an unacceptable risk to children, today as it did in 2000 and 2007, the last time tests found the deadly substance in these children's products," said Dr. Philip Landrigan, professor of pediatrics and preventive medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, in a statement. He reviewed, but was not involved in, the study.
Experts say there is no "safe" level of asbestos exposure. Even short exposures - just a few days - can cause serious lung problems, according to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
"There are no rules banning asbestos contamination in many consumer products and, to us, toys really stood out," said Sonya Lunder, report co-author and senior analyst at Environmental Working Group Action Fund.
Asbestos fibers and children are not a good mix. The fibers can separate and the particles release into the air and can be inhaled, leading to lung problems such as lung cancer and mesothelioma.
While the fingerprint powder could easily be inhaled, for crayons the concern is children eating them. In response a report in 2000 that found asbestos in crayons, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission said that the risk to children from asbestos in crayons is "extremely low" because asbestos fibers are embedded in the crayon wax and wouldn't escape inside the child.
"Some may say they're [children] not at risk of a very high of exposure, but children are much more reactive to toxic materials and we're dealing with a carcinogen," said Richard Lemen, retired US assistant surgeon general who specialized in occupational health. "We haven't identified a concentration or exposure below which we are at not risk."
Exposure to asbestos as a child means there's more time for an asbestos-related illness to develop later in life, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Scott Wolfson, communications director at the US Product Safety Commission, said the agency is taking the new report "very seriously."
"The law requires us to look at exposure - how much exposure could a child get from a crayon, fingerprint kit. How much of that do they have to inhale in order for their safety to be at risk," Wolfson said.
"A lot of science will need to go into staff's work to pass judgement as to whether regulatory action should taken," he said. "Children's safety is of the utmost importance to our agency."
This isn't the first time asbestos has been found in crayons or crime kits. In 2000 the Seattle Post Intelligencer newspaper had crayons tested and found asbestos in three popular brands. Seven years later, asbestos was found in crime kits.
"When this happened years ago I thought situation was put to rest, that the CPSC [Consumer Product Safety Commission] would take action," Lemen said. "Here we are four years later, we're still seeing it happen. It's a breakdown in the system that is set up to protect the American public, specifically American children."
Asbestos is more commonly used in building materials such as insulation and shingles, as it is resistant to heat and fire and doesn't readily degrade. It's unclear how the asbestos got into the crayons and crime kits, but it was likely a "contaminant of talc used as a binding agent in the crayons and in powder in the crime scene fingerprint kits," Lunder and colleagues wrote, adding that asbestos is often found near talc deposits.
The current report found asbestos in Amscan Crayons, Disney Mickey Mouse Clubhouse crayons, Nickelodeon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Crayons, Saban's Power Rangers Super Megaforce crayons, EduScience Deluve Forensics Lab Kit (black fingerprint powder), and Inside Intelligence Secret Spy kit (white fingerprint powder). The tests were conducted at the Scientific Analytical Institute in Greensboro, North Carolina.
The US Product Safety Commission did not put in place any regulations or bans following the previous reports on asbestos in crayons and kits.
Lunder and colleagues say the report should spur the safety commission to ban talc in children products.
Wolfson said, unlike lead and some other metals that have specific content limits, for asbestos the agency will have to look at exposure levels from these toys, which requires a more "rigorous amount of science." He said the agency isn't starting from scratch as it looked into exposure after the previous reports of asbestos but didn't have a timeline as to when they might make a decision on whether regulatory action is needed.
American crayon manufacturers largely stopped using talc after previous asbestos findings, Lunder said, and in the new report they didn't find any asbestos in American-made products. "But since so many toys come from China, those manufacturers promises aren't fully protective" of US children, she said. None of the asbestos-containing products listed talc on their labels either.
While no one has pinned an illness on asbestos-tainted toys or crayons, the authors of the report point out that asbestos in such products was discovered only recently and diseases can take years to develop.
"Clearly some toy manufacturers haven't done enough to protect children and others from asbestos in consumer products. Therefore, it's high-time the federal government bans asbestos in consumer products," Landrigan said.