School Supplies Harmful to Kids’ Health

Fall is in the air and parents across the United States are busy buying new backpacks, sharpening pencils, and packing lunch boxes in an effort to give their kids every bit of help, confidence, and encouragement during back-to-school time. But, a new study reveals that the school supplies parents buy may actually harm their children’s health.

The study was prepared by the advocacy group the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice (CHEJ) and evaluated the levels of hazardous chemicals in a variety of school supplies. In particular, phthalates are plasticizers used to soften vinyl and PVC-containing products and they are in widespread use in many products we use every day. Exposure to phthalates has been linked to endocrine abnormalities, including reproductive dysfunction, infertility, early onset puberty, obesity, and diabetes, as well as cancer, allergies, asthma, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Laws have been in place since 2008 in the United States that ban phthalate levels in excess of 0.1% (based on the mass of the entire product) in children’s toys and childcare products intended for sleep, feeding, or teething. However, these bans do not apply to school supplies, skin care products, cosmetics, adhesives, electronics, or packaging materials – other common sources of phthalates. Children are at the highest risk of adverse effects from phthalates owing to their sensitivity to toxic chemicals and the increased exposure to phthalates (often through putting things in their mouths).

For its evaluation, the CHEJ purchased backpacks, lunchboxes, binders, rain boots, and raincoats from low-cost retailers in New York. Overall, 75% of children’s school supplies contained levels of phthalates that would be illegal if the items were classified as toys. Unfortunately, most of the products did not contain labels that warned consumers of the phthalate content.

Humans are constantly exposed to hazardous chemicals, including phthalates. The cumulative and additive effects of phthalate exposure over a lifetime have yet to be confirmed. But, for the time being, staying away from them, to the extent possible, seems to be the best option. More legislation is in the works in Congress (The Safe Chemicals Act) that would place more limits on hazardous chemicals in consumer items, but manufacturers should also be compelled to minimize the use of phthalates and, at the very least, label phthalate-containing products.

If parents do not want to wait for Congress to phase out harmful chemicals, there are steps they can take to decrease their children’s risk of exposure, which are outlined in the CHEJ report. First, avoid products made from vinyl or PVC. (The more flexible a plastic product is, the more plasticizers it probably contains.) If the label does not list phthalates or PVC, parents can check the universal recycling symbol; if the number “3” is inside it or “V” or “PVC” is written underneath it, the product is made from PVC. Finally, if it is unclear, consumers should call the manufacturer to ask what type of plastic is used in the product.

Back-to-school season is an exciting time, and parents try to do right by their children and buy them the fashionable clothes and the trendy supplies. Parents are stocking up on educational games and books and scheduling the most stimulating after-school activities. But, selecting the wrong supplies could put pose physical and mental health risks.


Center for Health, Environment & Justice. Empire State Consumer Project. Hidden Hazards: Toxic Chemicals Inside Children’s Vinyl Back-to-School Supplies. August 2012.

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Image via Mike Flippo / Shutterstock.

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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