Boston — Not long ago, Michael Gellman made a creative papier-mache sculpture in his New Jersey kindergarten class. But his father, a laywer who has worked on several asbestos contamination cases, found the color and texture of the sculpture unsettling.
Mr. Gellman's concerns were well-founded. Subsequent tests found it to contain 50 percent asbestos, a material that medical authorities say is carcinogenic.
Michael's story is just one incident of many that have led to the current research and legislative controversy regarding the safety of art supplies used by schoolchildren and professional artists.
A recent study done by the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MassPIRG) found many of the school districts studied have been ordering such potentially hazardous art and craft supplies as lead glazes, asbestos gloves, rubber cement, spray adhesives, and solvent-based markers. MassPIRG maintains that these can cause chronic health hazards that often aren't immediately apparent.
Mindy Lubber of MassPIRG says she feels that these supplies have been used regularly because of inadequate labeling.
''Manufacturers have been making products more toxic than necessary while telling us little or nothing about what's in them,'' she says.
Current products often have no content or warning labels at all. But according to a representative of the Art and Craft Materials Institute (ACMI), a Boston-based trade organization, 70 percent to 90 percent of school art supplies bear the ACMI's voluntary certified products (CP) seal. This seal ensures that the product has met certain quality standards and has been tested by a toxicologist and found to be nontoxic, even if ingested.
The CP program, however, does not screen for chronic and allergic health effects, says Abbie Gerber, project manager in the chemical hazards program of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
''The nontoxic label can also be very misleading,'' adds Michael McCann, executive director of the Center for Occupational Hazards (COH) in New York. ''With this label, asbestos material can be labeled nontoxic, since it passed tests for acute toxicity. Even though the product still has not been tested for chronic effects, people will assume it's safe.''
Concern among artists, parents, teachers, and legislators has pointed up a lack of stringent regulation on the labeling of art materials. At least three states - Massachusetts, California, and New York - have legislation pending that would require comprehensive labeling of all art and craft supplies. All would require such labels to specify the danger, provide instructions for safe use, and list ingredients.
Opponents of such legislation prefer self-regulation by the industry. The industry, with advice from artists' groups, has developed a voluntary labeling program similar to the proposed legislation. Unlike proposed legislation, the program provides funds for the new labels and toxicologists to test product formulas.
''The health hazard is serious enough that we should not expect to rely upon voluntary programs to minimize the present risks,'' said Massachusetts State Sen. Edward L. Burke (D), chairman of the Senate Health Care Committee, which has held hearings on the matter.
Although nearly 80 percent of the art-supply industry has pledged conformity to the standard, many products are still unlabeled. The industry is relying on ''the pressures of the marketplace'' to make other companies comply, says Gill Cottingham of Binny & Smith, maker of Crayola crayons and a participant in the voluntary program.
However, critics worry that such pressures might have a reverse effect. Consumers, they say, may prefer to buy unlabeled products assuming that they are safer. Besides, they maintain, companies can easily renege on the voluntary requirements if their sales are affected, leaving artists groups no protection or recourse to law. Nor do the standards cover materials often used by artists but not specifically intended for artistic purposes.
However, one key group, Artists Equity, the only national association representing visual artists, withdrew its support for the various pieces of legislation to aid the voluntary effort. It changed its tack, a spokesman says, primarily because there are no appropriations for enforcement or testing of product formulas in any of the bills.
Most concerned parties agree that, ultimately, improved labeling will depend on educational programs for teachers, parents, artists, and those who purchase art supplies for schools.
The Boston Public Schools, for example, recently organized an art safety information workshop. Administrators hope it will serve as a model for other school systems.
Studies by various state PIRGs recommend that:
* State health departments compile lists of hazardous products and ingredients which may not be purchased for use in schools.
* Art education students be required to participate in training sessions on the safe use of hazardous art supplies before being certified to teach.
* Government and/or the art-supply industry conduct further research into the hazards of toxic supplies.