• Michael Skalka

Gray Market Paints - Not a Pretty Color



In honor of Earth Day this last week, the topic of this essay focuses on environmental safety in a studio setting. Hopefully you have a safe place to do your artwork that is not the same place where food is prepared or that children and/or pets can make contact with art materials. In those cases where space is limited, the best plan is to engineer a way to pack up your art materials after every session so that they cannot be tampered with by children or furry beasts, who roam about your house.


Artists should not be on a first name basis or on speed-dial with either the local hospital emergency department staff or those who operate the National Poison Control Hotline. With safety first in mind, the last task of the day when making art if children or pets are around is to secure all studio items from being invaded.

One does not want to have to understand after an incident occurs, to quickly learn the difference between non-toxic, toxic and acutely toxic. Ingesting a heaping glob of lead white paint, defines the acutely toxic realm and requires immediate medical attention. In all cases, no matter what art material is ingested or inhaled, Poison Control should be contacted. These centers have proprietary information required by compliance to ASTM D4236, the health and safety standard, to have either written information at their disposal or have a contact source with the company that manufacturers the product.

Artists should become familiar with the product labeling. ASTM D4236 requires that art materials be labeled appropriately as to warn of harmful materials in any product they sell.


The Labeling of Hazardous Art Materials Act, referred to as LHAMA is overseen by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. All art materials sold in the United States are required to be reviewed by a certified toxicologist who is trained to determine how an art material should be labeled. D4236 laid the framework for what later became LHAMA, a federal law governing the sale of art materials. Decades ago, the ASTM subcommittee that I currently serve in the capacity as chairperson, worked tirelessly to draft, approve and testify before Congress on what became federal law governing the sale and labeling of art products. We all owe these unsung heroes a debt of gratitude for their work.


This week I embarked on researching storage containers or alternative measures to store tubes of paint to allow easy access to them. I am not keen on merely piling tubes in a paint box or scattering them all over a table. I like a bit of order when I paint. Looking at storage systems led me to a surprising discovery.


A “hole” exists in the system of governing the import of art materials that allows art products to be sold in the United States that have not been reviewed and evaluated using LHAMA. Even worse, some of the pigments in the paints are acutely toxic. I would wager that a vast number of these products do not have the ‘Conforms to ASTM D426” statement or the foreign equivalent of internationally recognized graphics depicting health hazards on these tubes of paint. Unfortunately, these products can be obtained unwittingly by artists here in the United States.


The manufacturers themselves are not acting as international retailers. They are not to blame. The products are being resold by individual entrepreneurs who have no direct link to the manufacturers. They are neither importers/exporters or official representatives of these companies. It is eye opening to find what an artist can buy that is hazardous and has no visible warning labels indicating that the product contains materials that are acutely toxic. Further, it is ironic that the price for these paints is about equal to art products sold by United States retailers. So, there is no real incentive to get cheaper paint from these markets.


These items are technically referred to as “gray market” items. The resellers are not authorized to sell the art materials and the products were likely never intended to be marketed overseas to the United States. What is clear is that these products are illegal to sell in the United States if they do not bear the ASTM conformance statement, that is also backed up by the required toxicology studies.


So, returning to the scenario where an incident of accidental ingestion of one of these illegal products occurs, do you really think that the National Poison Control Hotline will have formulation and toxicology data on these items? The Consumer Product Safety Commission is understaffed when it comes to tracking down resellers of illegal products. They focus their time and efforts on inspecting products that arrive in the US via shipping ports. One of their primary tasks is assuring that a vast array of children’s products safe for sale in the US.


Many years ago, I heard stories about executive world travelers who would purchase expensive luxury cars in Europe and have them shipped home. Imagine that! Then they would spend even more money replacing parts of the car like the windshield in order to conform to US safety standards to make the car “street legal.” Now, if you purchase a car overseas, it is already outfitted for the export market and is fine to drive as soon as it is unloaded from the ship that carried it across the ocean.


That does not apply to art materials not intended for US markets. The toxic pigment can’t be replaced with a documented, approved, tested material.


In my opinion, it is not worth the risk. The US has so many discount online retailers who sell legal, safe, products with ASTM Conformance statements or ACMI approval seals. Cost is not a factor. In many cases, the duty that needs to be paid and the shipping cost, wipe out any savings and make the product even more expensive than what can be obtained domestically. Heaven forbid if a child or pet gets into these grey market paints. Stick to brands you know and trust. These companies have ways of contacting them by phone or email if you have any questions or concerns about the art materials they produce. Stay safe.


Syntax of Color

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