Kids and clay are like milk and cookies. They just naturally go together. Is there anyone who doesn’t have fond school age memories of making ashtrays for Dad and vases for Mom? Heck, playing with clay is practically a rite of passage. And these days the new generation of wildly colorful polymer-based clays makes that tradition more fun than ever. But just what exactly is in these popular baking and modeling clays? Would you believe hazardous phthalates?
According to research conducted by the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) bake-able polymer clays sold under brand names like Sculpey, Fimo, and Cernit contain high levels of phthalates, a hazardous chemical.
Phthalates are a type of compound added to a variety of products in order to increase fluidity and flexibility. Cosmetics and soap use them to enhance pourability and application ease, and many plastics use them to maintain softness and bendability. Consumers might remember that phthalates were in the news only last year when researchers announced that a wide variety of children’s toys, especially those made from soft vinyl plastics, were found to contain large quantities of phthalates.
More recently, phthalates have been identified in a wide variety of cosmetic products.
Exposure to phthalates is a cause of great concern because these chemicals have been linked to a long list of health problems including reduced fertility, reproductive disorders, liver damage, thyroid problems, miscarriage, birth defects, nerve damage, and cancer.
For these and other reasons, not the least of which is children’s greater vulnerability to environmental toxins, the discovery of phthalates in modeling clays is alarming. According to the VPIRG research, the tested clays contained up to 14% phthalates by weight. These phthalates enter children’s’ bodies via hand to mouth contact and by the inhalation of the fumes produced when the clays are baked to create permanent sculptures. In fact, previous research has found that phthalates transfer quite readily to people who come into contact with materials that contain them. For example, a child playing for five minutes with just three and a half ounces of the tested clays would be exposed to levels of phthalates that exceed the maximum daily exposure standards set for drinking water in Florida and Minnesota. Unfortunately, washing hands isn’t much help. Even after adult researchers scrubbed theirs, phthalate residues remained on their skin in measurable amounts.
Adding a note of urgency to the general alarm bells sounded by the VPIRG report is the fact that all the clays tested have received non-toxic certification from the Arts and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI), an industry trade group, and are advertised as "environmentally friendly." According to VPIRG, ACMI’s approval for the non-toxic certification was based on the belief on that polymer clays contain just a few phthalates, a contention disproved by the VPIRG analysis. Further clouding the issue of polymer clay safety is the fact that many of the other chemicals VPIRG found in these products were simply not considered by ACMI during the approval process.
VPIRG has joined with its network of PIRGs in other states to press for immediate action on this clear threat to the health of young children. Steps being taken by the PIRGs include calling on manufacturers to place warnings on these products; urging the Consumer Product Safety Commission to investigate the issue; changing federal laws that allow chemicals to be used in children’s products without comprehensive testing; and asking state Attorneys General to investigate clay manufacturer claims of non-toxicity. Obviously, VPIRG is also advising parents not to let their children use these clays until they’re made safe.
In the meantime, however, the urge to play with clay still runs strong in our nation’s children. There remain countless gifts to make for countless Moms and Dads. To that end, we’d like to offer this simple recipe for a safe and natural clay substitute that can be made in minutes, will last for weeks, and can even be baked into a semi-permanent state.
A-OK Play Clay
1 cup of flour
1/4 cup of salt
2 tablespoons of cream of tartar
1 cup of water
1 tablespoon of vegetable oil
Food coloring (if desired)
Combine all ingredients in a pot over medium heat and stir. Add food coloring until the desired color intensity is reached. (Note that for a 100% natural product natural dyes like beet and berry juice, etc can be used instead.) Continue stirring until the clay forms a ball and reaches the consistency of commercial play doughs. Place on foil or wax paper until cool. Store in plastic bag or tightly sealed container.
Written by: Vermont Public Interest Research Group, Inc.
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