School Supplies Pose Toxic Threat to Students

Reported by Jessica Rae Patton

Shoppers are being urged to seek out PVC-free and recycled school supplies.

Children may be savoring the remaining days of summer, but environmental-advocacy groups and publications are urging parents to get into back-to-school gear with a green focus.

The Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ) and Canada"s Environmental Defence are advising parents not to buy products made with polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which contains chemicals that can cause a range of adverse health effects. A guide released August 4 helps parents choose safer, PVC-free school supplies in over 20 product categories.

PVC can be found in or on many back-to-school products, including lunch boxes, binders, backpacks, clothes and art supplies. It contains dangerous chemical additives, including phthalates, lead and cadmium, to soften or stabilize it. These chemicals may contribute to developmental disorders and damage of the liver, central nervous, respiratory and reproductive systems. Recent studies have linked PVC flooring in the home to increased rates of autism and asthma in children. Over 90% of all phthalates are used in PVC products such as school supplies.

There is particular concern about children’s exposure to these chemicals since “numerous studies have found that young children are particularly susceptible to the harmful effects of chemicals released by PVC,” says Mike Schade, PVC campaign coordinator for CHEJ.

"This guide was created to help parents make informed choices when it comes to back-to-school shopping by suggesting alternatives and offering tips," says Dr. Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence and coauthor of the book Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health (Knopf Canada). Smith says, "Given that many safer PVC-free products are available, parents should try to avoid products made of this chemical concoction wherever possible."

Another resource for concerned consumers is an article titled "Green School Supplies: Eco-Savvy Shopping Just Got Easier" in the August 2009 issue of Natural Awakenings magazine. While the CHEJ guide addresses what to avoid, writer Betsy Franz suggests some eco-friendlier alternatives and notes that even the big-box office supply stores are greening up their act. Franz writes, "Staples, for example, lists nearly 3,000 products in its EcoEasy line; OfficeMax has some 1,700 environmentally preferred products; and Office Depot offers a new Buy Green storefront area, displaying products of "various shades of green." Most school supplies, including recycled and sugar cane-based paper, recyclable binders and pens, pencils and even bulletin boards, made from recycled materials, will be available locally from one or more of these outlets."

A copy of the PVC-Free Back-to-School Guide is available to download here:

SOURCES: CHEJ; Environmental Defence; Natural Awakenings.