Hidden Dangers of Back-to-School Supplies

As summer comes to a close, many parents are shopping for back-to-school items. But some popular school supplies contain large amounts of harmful chemicals, according to the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ).

CHEJ conducted a study and found that vinyl plastic back-to-school supplies including backpacks, 3-ring binders, lunchboxes, rainboots, and raincoats often contain elevated levels of phthalates. Phthalates are harmful chemicals that have been linked to birth defects, asthma, and hormone disruption. Because of the risks associated with exposure, phthalate levels are federally regulated in children’s toys. However, that regulation does not extend to most school supplies because they are not categorized as children’s toys in federal law.

In a survey of 20 popular back-to-school items made with soft vinyl, CHEJ found that 75% of the products contained levels of phthalates that would be in violation of the federal chemicals limit if school supplies were classified as toys. The Amazing Spider Man backpack contained 52 times the amount of chemicals allowed for toys, and the Disney Princess Lunchbox contained 29 times the federal limit. Despite the known risks, these products are still available for sale.

According to CHEJ, phthalates in vinyl plastic school supplies are dangerous because they are not chemically bound to the products, allowing them to be released from the vinyl surface. However, there are a number of precautions you can take to protect your children from exposure to these toxic substances.

  • Avoid school supplies made with vinyl plastic (PVC) whenever possible, including backpacks, 3-ring binders, and lunchboxes.
  • Purchase products labeled “PVC-free.” If a product has a “3”, “V”, or “PVC” underneath the universal recycling symbol, it is not PVC-free.
  • Contact the product manufacturer if you are unsure of the type of plastic used in a product.

For a list of PVC-free products that are safe for children, check out CHEJ’s 2013 Back to School Guide to PVC-free School Supplies.