Dry Erase Markers – Health Concerns You Should Know

SUMMARY POINTS

> Modern dry erase markers present no significant toxic dangers
> Strong odors and marker residue on your hands are the main health issues
> Use only low odor markers to cut down on strong smells
> Clean your hands and your desk surfaces of any marker residue powder

As the teacher is writing on the blackboard, you can see tiny bits of chalk flaking off with each word and falling to the floor.

Things get worse when she uses the eraser - wiping the chalk markings from the blackboard sends fine chalk dust particles into the air.

The chalk dust is unavoidable. It’s dry and powdery. And any little inhale makes you want to choke.

If you’ve ever had the unfortunate privilege of being seated at the front of the classroom as an elementary school kid, you’ll know all about this.

Today, as a working adult, you don’t have to worry about chalky messes in the conference room. Those little white sticks of chalk are now replaced with colorful dry erase markers and whiteboards.

As the presenter opens the cap to the blue marker and starts drawing out the idea on the whiteboard, the strong alcohol-like odor immediately spreads across the conference room.

It’s a fresh new dry erase marker and the odor is nearing your tolerance levels. And you’re sitting toward the back of the windowless conference room. If you were any closer, you’d start getting a headache.

The next color is even worse. The thick black lines almost make it seem to smell stronger. Ugh.

She reaches for the eraser to make corrections, but uh-oh...it’s not wiping off.

She just got duped by a permanent marker - a rookie mistake of not checking the marker before using it. Some cubicle culprit somewhere is giggling right now.

Now, her modern abstract rendition of a “boat,” which looks more like a penis, is on permanent exhibit for everyone in the office to see.

The meeting ends and when you step outside of the conference room, even the recycled office air seems fresh compared to what’s been inside.

You step outside for a few minutes to get some real fresh air and clear your foggy head. And then, you wonder what’s worse, the fine chalk dust or acrid marker odors. 

The Potential Dangers Of Dry Erase Markers & How To Avoid Them

Dry erase markers were created by a company called Sanford way back in 1976. It was and still is called Expo. You’ve seen this name on every dry erase marker out there. It’s in pretty much every single conference room in the world. They dominate the market.

When they first came out in the 70’s, many markers used toxic chemical solvents like xylene and toluene. Back then, some kids would sniff these markers to get high. It was an easy to obtain recreational drug.

Solvents are needed in all markers. They “carry” the ink or color pigments from the marker to the writing surface and then evaporate to leave the ink on the surface.

Today, solvents like xylene and toluene are still being used in some permanent markers and other industrial applications.

However, today, dry erase markers use less harsh solvents, pigments and other additives. And while they’re measurably less toxic than their original counterparts, they still do present some health concerns.

Dry Erase Marker Fumes

This is probably the most irritating and annoying aspect of dry erase markers. It’s the odor from the solvent that’s evaporating into the air while the marker is being used.

Depending upon what type of solvent the manufacturer uses, the odor strength and smell can vary widely. Water-based solvents aren’t nearly as smelly as chemical-based ones.

In today’s dry erase markers, most manufacturers have shifted toward using less harsh solvents that are marketed as “low odor.” These types of markers use denatured alcohol blends kind of like rubbing alcohol in a way. It’s not as “stingy” in odor and it still works effectively to transport the ink pigment to the surface.

However, it’s still not completely 100% odorless. There’s always a hint of the solvent odor evaporating into the air. It’s an unavoidable aspect that comes with usage.

It’s most pronounced when it’s a fresh new dry erase marker that’s opened and used for the first time. Also the bigger the marker, the greater the odor.

For some of us, even the slightest hint of that odor is enough to trigger some light dizziness or even headaches.

The best thing to do is sit further away from the whiteboard, closer to a window (if there is one) or sit by the door and leave the door open to allow the odor to dissipate out of the room and fresh air to enter.

If you’re trapped and can’t get relief within the room, step outside the meeting for a few minutes when the topic isn’t related to your responsibilities or projects. Get some fresh air and then go back in.

If you’re the one having to use the whiteboard, use the low-odor markers, keep some distance from the whiteboard and cap the marker when you’re not using it.

In either case, plan on getting outside for some real fresh air right after the meeting ends. Don’t just go back to your desk. The recycled office air inside just doesn’t feel as good as what’s outside.

Dry Erase Ink Powder Residue

The other main ingredient in dry erase markers is the ink or pigment. This is what you see on the whiteboard.

What allows dry erase markers to easily erase from whiteboards is the type of pigment polymer used.

Some polymers are “stickier” and cling to surfaces much stronger. These kinds of polymers are found in your Sharpie permanent marker.

Other polymers are more “slippery” and thus, don’t attach to surfaces well. These types of pigments can be found in washable markers that kids play write with on fabrics - they come out in the washer.

Dry erase markers typically have “oiler” silicon-based polymer pigments that loosely sit on top of non-porous surfaces like glass, metal, ceramics, etc. Basically, any surface where water can’t absorb into.

But, be warned, dry erase marker pigment can absorb into porous materials like fabrics - your shirt, pants, etc. It’s very much like getting an oily food stain on your shirt - it’ll be hard to get out. They can be like permanent markers on any surface that can absorb water.

Now, just like in the old school days of blackboards and chalk dust, we have to contend with dry erase marker pigment residue. And while it’s not as fine as chalk dust, it’s still a powdery residue that we need to be careful with.

We’re not going to bore you with all the scientific tidbits of these pigments. Just know that it’s a concoction of different chemical compounds. And, it’s these compounds you want to be careful with.

In today’s dry erase markers, there isn’t enough of these chemical compounds left behind to pose any real substantial health risk from marker use. That’s why most modern dry erase markers qualify as being non-toxic.

It’s not like chalk dust like in old school days where you could inhale it and cause some real lung damage or at the very least, have an allergic reaction.

But there’s still a powdery residue sometimes that can be blown onto other surfaces where your hands come into contact. This is when there’s a greater risk of ingesting the pigment or getting it your eyes.

So, the key thing here is to wash your hands after you use the whiteboard.

And, for God’s sake...

Don’t Erase The Whiteboard With Your Hands

We see this all the time and in fact, we’ve been guilty of doing this too.

You’re drawing out the idea or plan on the whiteboard and you make a little mistake. And of course as usual, the eraser is nowhere to be found.

So, what do you do?

You use your hands and fingers to wipe off the marking and soldier on with your presentation.

We know that when you’re “in the zone” and your ideas and thoughts are flowing out easily, you don’t want to disrupt the magic by leaving the meeting to scavenge an eraser from another conference room or grab a napkin from the break room.

We get it.

But, understand that all those solvents and chemicals are now embedded in your hands. So, be sure to wash your hands after you share your miracle plan.

If you don’t wash your hands, you run the risk of getting microscopic bits in your eyes when rubbing your face or accidentally ingesting them when eating your sandwich during lunch.

Neither of these is life-threatening.

If you get any bits in your eyes, just flush them with warm water. If you forgot to wash your hands and chowed down a sandwich, it won’t do any digestive harm to you. If anything, it’s the thought that will make you sick more than anything else.

To be on the safe side…

Buy/Use Dry Erase Markers That Are Certified To The ASTM D-4236 Standard

The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) is a US-based organization that is focused on developing and publishing voluntary international technical standards for a wide range of products and materials.

There are over 12,000 ASTM voluntary standards that they have published, much of them are for industrial and commercial applications for safety purposes.

Some standards have direct consumer impact like the “D-4236” standard for art materials, which includes things like dry erase markers.

You can see this on the markers themselves and on their packaging.

This standard basically indicates that the product has passed toxicological tests to contain “no materials in sufficient quantities to be toxic or injurious to humans, or to cause acute toxicity or chronic health problems” (example from Sanford’s Expo marker).

In plain English, it’s non-toxic and safe to use as intended.

If you color your tongue, poke your eyes with it or eat it, all bets are off. This isn’t Crayola for kids.

Most all dry erase markers conform to this standard. If you have any doubts, just check the packaging or the markers themselves, you should be able to spot the certification easily.

Other Issues With Dry Erase Markers & Their Fixes

Beyond the fumes and ink residue of dry erase markers, there are also several other non-health related issues to be aware of.

These are annoyances that come with using whiteboards. They can be easily avoided or sorted out without much effort.

1) Staining Your Skin

It’s inevitable. There’s gonna be a few times where you end up marking your own hands with the ink. It’s no biggie.

Just like the old Cracker Jack mini skin tattoos, it’ll come off easily by washing your hands with soap and warm water.

2) Staining Your Clothes

It’s one thing to accidentally mark up your hands, but it’s an entirely different issue if you ink your clothes.

Remember, just because it’s “dry erase” doesn’t mean that it’s erasable on all surfaces and materials.

Dry erase markers act more like permanent markers on porous surfaces and materials. So, anything that can absorb water will absorb the pigment.

Your clothing is no different.

So, if you end up poking your shirt or pants with the cap off, it’s not the end of that garment.

Just follow these steps with stuff you should have in the office:

1) Put several paper towels under the fabric
2) Get rubbing alcohol from the first aid kit or the alcohol whiteboard cleaner spray
3) Dab the stained area with alcohol soaked paper towel
4) Using a dry paper towel or sponge, rub and dab the area and repeat until it’s gone 
5) Rinse the garment with clean water 

Next time, don’t be so clumsy with the marker!

3) Overall Environmental Impact

This is something few actually think about. For organizations that are whiteboard-crazy and frankly, what company isn’t these days, there are used up and dried out markers that are thrown out every day.

Multiply that by the millions of companies out there using whiteboards and markers and you can easily see the potential environmental impact that these throw-away plastic markers have.

Plastic doesn’t degrade - they just go on forever in landfills.

The good news is that they can be recycled. Some marker manufacturers actually offer free recycling programs where they’ll pay for you to ship waste markers back to them for recycling into other products and uses.

So, if your company has a recycling committee, throw this idea into the ring and I’m sure they’ll take it up.

It’s Still The Best Option Over Chalk & Blackboards

Given all the other options for drawing and sharing information visually, in real-time, in a group setting, you really can’t beat whiteboards and the dry erase markers that are paired with them.

Even with the minor drawbacks of dry erase markers, they are the best temporary writing tools to help all of us get our messages, ideas and thoughts across on a big white wall.

And if you really practice at it, you can be like this guy and make amazing stop-motion dry erase animations.

VIDEO: Stop Motion | Whiteboard Animation: The Marker Maker 
YOUTUBE: Jonny Lawrence
LENGTH: 2:29 

Summary points:
> Wise words from Eckhart Tolle rings so true
> Everything in life begins with thoughts
> Becoming aware of our thoughts leads to serenity  

Manufacturers are continually improving markers and now, most are low-odor and non-toxic. So, there’s really nothing to worry about.

If you do end up using one with a strong odor, just crack open the door or window or find another low-odor version to use. Either way, be sure to wash your hands afterward and take a walk outside for some fresh air.

Do this and you’ll be fine and the only thing you’ll have to worry about is whether or not your handwriting and drawings are discernible.

And speaking of that...that penis boat drawn with permanent marker was fixed.

We used a little trick - draw over the permanent marker thoroughly and completely with a black dry erase marker then, simply wipe away while the dry erase ink is still wet. It took a few applications, but it worked like magic.

Feel Better,
[Cubicle|Therapy]