It’s almost time for the kids to head back to school, which means now’s the time to kit them out with new supplies, but did you know you could be doing serious damage to their health simply based on the school supplies you choose for them? It doesn’t matter how healthy the lunches you pack for them are, or how well you’ve done in getting their hand-washing habits up to scratch – a shocking 75 percent of back-to-school supplies contain toxic chemicals that could be causing damage at a cellular level!
There is a scarily long list of chemicals found in various school supplies ranging from chlorine to PVC, and solvents. A study in 2012 by the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ) found that three-quarters of kids’ stationery supplies contained high levels of toxic phthalates (3) our main culprit!
What Are Phthalates?
Phthalates are chemicals found in plastics that act as binding agents, as well as making them soft, squishy, or flexible (1). These dangerous chemicals have featured in many studies linking them to almost every major public health concern over the past twenty years. These includes asthma, ADHD, cancer, autism spectrum disorders, and fertility issues. They have even been shown to cause low IQ (2) so certainly aren’t something you want to be putting in the school bag!
Any item in your child’s backpack that is plastic and flexible (such as bendy rulers or see-through pencil cases) is guaranteed to contain these dangerous plastic compounds. The biggest problem with phthalates is that they are free-floating. They don’t ‘attach’ to the structure of the plastic, meaning they can easily leach out onto your child’s skin every time they handle the item in question.
Companies to Avoid
Of the products that were tested during the study, seven companies were found to have dangerously high levels of phthalates.
The sweet little Dora the Explorer backpack that little boys and girls are given for their first day at big school are high in toxic chemicals. Other Nickelodeon products to avoid are pencil cases and lunch boxes.
Makers of plastic folders and ring binders, Penway’s stock list should not make its way onto your child’s start of term list.
For many little kids, having merchandise with their favorite wrestler on it is a must! However, WWE lunchboxes, backpacks, pencil cases and raincoats were all on the list of toxic school supplies.
One of the most popular stationary suppliers, Fridge’s plastic pencil cases should NOT be in your child’s backpack on their way to school.
Another well-known and popular stationary supplier, Corner Office’s range of ring binders and folders were tested and found to be unsafe for children to use.
What little kid doesn’t want to feel like a superhero? However, the reality is that Marvel has actually cast itself as a villain when it comes to children’s health. Don’t buy their backpacks, raincoats, pencil cases, or stationery!
Avoid Disney’s school supplies! Whether it’s lunchboxes, raincoats, backpacks, pencil cases, stationery or even t-shirts, they all have high levels of toxicity. Not exactly the record you expect from a company that claims to possess the ‘happiest place on Earth.’
What is Being Done?
There has been more than enough research done to indicate that companies should be cautious about using these dangerous chemicals. Especially in products for children who have been shown to be the most vulnerable to phthalates’ effects (1). However, regulating consumer products in the U.S. is a long and slow process. Even in the light of extensive research and reports, seeing the results reflected at the consumer level can take a long time.
For now, your best bet will be to shop smart. Think about alternatives to plastics wherever possible, and keep an eye on the labels on products so you can avoid dangerous items.
For example, any product (not just school supplies) with the recycle code ‘3’ on it that means it contains phthalates and PVC (3), so try and avoid these where possible!
What Are The Alternatives?
To give you a few tips or ideas on avoiding the toxic products, take a look at our mini-guide below. You can go into this year’s school supply shop stocked with useful information!
Go for bags made from natural materials where possible, such as cotton or canvas and steer clear of flexible plastic! This way you can avoid the phthalates and PVC which will be in any bags with “vinyl” on the label. You’ll certainly want to avoid items with PVC in them as this is a known carcinogen, and reproductive toxin (3).
A great place to start would be at EcoGear whose backpacks are free from damaging chemicals.
Traditional plastic lunchboxes contain Bisphenol -A (BPA) which has been known to disrupt hormone levels in the blood (4) and most also contain PVC. Plastic water bottles also contain BPA.
Your best bet for avoiding these chemicals is to buy stainless steel lunch boxes and bottles. If your kids feel uninspired by the range of stainless steel lunchboxes, decorate them with stickers. It can be a fun activity, and you’ll be sure they will have a unique lunchbox – no more mix-ups!
Chlorine is commonly used to bleach paper products and has been linked to asthma in the past (3). It is getting easier and easier to purchase unbleached paper from stationery stores. Keep an eye out for labels informing you that they are unbleached, otherwise, Office Depot has a great sustainable line.
Often markers, highlighters, and crayons can contain toxic solves and fake fragrances that could cause respiratory damage (3). You should try to avoid permanent markers at all costs, as well as scented products.
For toxic-free supplies, check out the Clementine Art range, sold at Whole Foods.
Additionally, both Walmart and Target have released initiatives promising to make purchasing choices based on protecting their customers’ health. They said they would reduce, or entirely remove toxic chemicals from their shelves across their entire product range.
This, in turn, had an impact on the suppliers. Procter & Gamble, the largest consumer goods company in the world, promised to eliminate phthalate from its products (5), a huge step in the right direction!
Back to School
Unfortunately, these chemicals are still present in many products that surround us on a daily basis and it’s nearly impossible to avoid contact with them completely. However, you can drastically reduce your child’s exposure to them at this vital developmental time by making sensible purchasing decisions, surrounding them with toxic-free stationery for a happy (and safe!) year at school.
(1) Westervelt A.(2015, February 10) Chemical enemy number one: how bad are phthalates really?. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/feb/10/phthalates-plastics-chemicals-research-analysis. Accessed August 25, 2016.
(2) Sample I. (2014, December 10) Phthalates risk damaging children’s IQs in the womb, US researchers suggest. The Guardian. 2014. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/dec/10/phthalates-damage-childrens-iqs-womb-plastic-chemicals. Accessed August 25, 2016.
(3) Weinberg Dieve S. (2014, August 11) 8 Tips on Finding Non-Toxic Back to School Supplies. MOMS Advocating Sustainability. Available at: http://www.momsadvocatingsustainability.org/school-supplies/. Accessed August 25, 2016.
(4) Rubin B. (2011, October) Bisphenol A: An endocrine disruptor with widespread exposure and multiple effects. The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. 2011;127(1-2):27-34. doi:10.1016/j.jsbmb.2011.05.002. Accessed August 25, 2016.
(5) 6. Gunther M. (2013, December 17) A toxic situation: Walmart and Target take on chemical safety. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/walmart-target-toxic-chemicals-soap-makeup-revlon. Accessed August 25, 2016.