The District, Alexandria and Arlington have the worst records among area schools for screening toxic art materials out of classrooms, according to a consumer group that said cancer-causing agents banned for use elsewhere are commonly purchased by schools here.
The study of Washington area schools, conducted by the Washington-based U.S. Public Interest Research Group, was immediately challenged by some school officials who said the group had not contacted them nor visited their schools. Alexandria School Board Chairman Lou Cook called the study "the latest scientific scare tactic."
The report, released yesterday, found at least 47 hazardous art and craft supplies on the procurement lists of area school systems, although it said safe substitutes are available for most of the products. Of a dozen products that the research group said should be banned from use in schools, eight were available in schools in Alexandria, Arlington and the District.
"Every day, school children in art and craft classes throughout the Washington, D.C., area use rubber cements, clays and glazes, and paints and dyes that may be slowly poisoning their bodies," group attorney Pamela Gilbert said at a press conference yesterday at the Thomson School in Northwest Washington.
The study found that some of the most hazardous supplies are among the most commonly available in local classrooms. Among those noted were permanent markers and rubber cement that contain solvents known to cause skin disease, eye, nose and throat irritation and damage the nervous system, according to the report.
"They're prevalent and very, very dangerous," Gilbert said.
Officials in Arlington and Alexandria said they had not seen the report, which was based on evaluations of school supply procurement lists, and were skeptical of its findings.
"I do not think that [the research group] has even been in Alexandria schools," Cook said yesterday.
In September, Alexandria art teachers evaluated their supplies and "pitched out anything" hazardous, Cook said. Additionally, Northern Virginia schools are under a state order to test all chemicals used in schools by May 25, she said, and Alexandria has done so.
Students are "probably in more danger walking to school with carbon monoxide" fumes from cars, Cook said.
The study lauds Montgomery County's efforts to take hazardous materials out of classrooms. Last fall, the system hired the same consultant used in the research group study to advise what products should be eliminated from classrooms. Since then, the system has canceled orders for some of those products and recalled others from school supply closets. Officials in Prince George's County already had identified and taken some toxic products out of schools during the study, according to Gilbert.
School officials in the District said they planned to act on the study's recommendations that certain materials be eliminated from the schools and require training for teachers on the use of others.
"We plan to make every attempt to follow the recommendations," said Deputy School Superintendent Andrew Jenkins.
In Arlington, said school spokesman Margaret Heckard, "If there's something that we're using that there's scientific proof is dangerous to children, we'll quit using it."
Despite nationwide concerns about toxic art materials, some local school officials said they were unaware of the problems.
"Many of them weren't aware of it and when made aware of it promised to act right away," Gilbert told reporters at the press conference. Later, she said, "I'm surprised that they're surprised. The issue has been talked about at least since 1981."
The study by the research group, the national lobbying group for public interest research groups throughout the country, is part of an effort to push for national legislation requiring safety labeling on arts and crafts products. National debate on mandatory labeling has continued since congressional legislation was rejected five years ago in favor of voluntary labeling by manufacturers.
Few of the products found in the area's five major public school systems had adequate warning labels, according to Gilbert.
William H.L. Brown, executive director of the District's Parent Teacher Association, said the group will lobby the City Council to require labeling on products used in the District.
Industry officials maintain that voluntary labels are in widespread use.
Hope Crawley, spokesman for the National Art Materials Trade Association, which represents the makers of art supplies, said school systems should buy only those materials that have the safety labels explaining the ingredients and proper use by children.
The research group report said such things as rubber cement, linked to permanent nerve damage, have been used in Alexandria, the District and Montgomery County.
Lead-based paint that can cause respiratory and nerve disorders, were on the shelves in Alexandria, according to the report, and toxic glazes and spray products were on the purchase orders in Fairfax and Prince George's counties.
The study also identified 34 products specialists say should not be used by elementary school-aged children. But the study was unable to determine how the materials were used in area schools.
Gilbert said the findings only show a small part of the problem because a bulk of school art supplies are purchased by classroom teachers who are not aware of hazardous supplies. "These teachers have not been instructed in safe use of art supplies," said Gilbert. "They can go to an art store and pick up anything they find."