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Toxic levels of chemicals found in back-to-school supplies

Used primarily to soften plastics, phthalates are known endocrine disruptors. They have been linked, even at low levels, to a host of health problems.

This Disney Princess Lunchbox contained an estimated 29,800 ppm of the same phthalate — more than 27 times the limit set by the ban affecting toys.

Parents have one more thing to think about as they shop with their children for back-to-school supplies this fall.

A report released Sunday by the Center for Health, Environment & Justice has found that some of those supplies contain toxic levels of chemicals called phthalates.

Used primarily to soften plastics, phthalates are known endocrine disruptors. They have been linked, even at low levels, to a host of health problems, including birth defects, asthma, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obesity. Children are considered particularly at risk for phthalates’ harmful effects, a factor that moved Congress to ban their use in toys in 2008.

But the chemicals remain in other products that children come in contact with daily, as this new report demonstrates.

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“It’s amazing that we can have a ban of phthalates in children’s toys, but that high levels of these chemicals are still being used in children’s back-to-school supplies at a rate that far exceeds the ban in toys,” said Katie Rojas-Jahn, coalition coordinator for the Minnesota-based Healthy Legacy campaign and a program associate at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, in an interview Monday.

Healthy Legacy, which advocates for the removal of toxic chemicals from everyday products, partnered with CHEJ and a third group, the Empire State Consumer Project, on the release of the report.

The report’s findings

For the report, CHEJ asked an independent laboratory to test 20 popular children’s back-to-school products (four brands each of backpacks, lunchboxes, three-ring binders, rain boots and raincoats) for the presence of six phthalates and four heavy metals. All the products were purchased this year in New York City.

Here’s a summary of the laboratory’s key findings:

  • 80 percent (16/20) of the back-to-school products contained phthalates
  • 75 percent (15/20) of the products contained levels of phthalates that are higher than the amount permitted in toys by the 2008 federal law
  • 55 percent (11/20) of the products contained more than one phthalate
  • None of the labels on the tested school supplies indicated that the products contained phthalates

Some of the products had very high levels of the toxic chemicals. The Amazing Spider Man Backpack, for example, contained an estimated 52,700 parts per million (ppm) of the phthalate DEHP. “If this product were a children’s toy, it would be over 52 times the limit set by the federal ban,” the study points out. The Disney Princess Lunchbox contained an estimated 29,800 ppm of the same phthalate — more than 27 times the limit set by the ban.

Some 40 percent (8/20) of the back-to-school products contained heavy metals, but in relatively low levels.

 “This testing is an unfortunate example of the problem we have with chemicals in everyday products,” said Rojas-Jahn.

Legislative efforts to reduce exposure

In 2009, the Minnesota Legislature passed the Toxic Free Kids Act to help protect children from harmful chemicals. It requires the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) to create and maintain two lists of chemicals: “chemicals of high concern” and “priority chemicals.” It also instructs the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to recommend strategies for reducing and phasing out the use of priority chemicals in children’s products.

Two of the phthalates tested for in the CHEJ back-to-school-supplies report — DEHP and DBP — are on the MDH’s priority chemicals list. But that doesn’t mean that products with these chemicals don’t get into the hands — and mouths — of Minnesota’s children. Rojas-Jahn said she was able to purchase one of the phthalate-containing backpacks at a Minnesota Kmart store within the past two weeks.

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More legislative protection is needed, she said, particularly an updating of the 36-year-old federal law regulating industrial chemicals. The Safe Chemicals Act, introduced into the U.S. Senate by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and co-sponsored by 20 other senators, including Minnesota’s Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Al Franken, would provide that update. That bill (S. 847) cleared the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in July.

“We’re hoping the Senate will take it up,” said Rojas-Jahn.

What parents can do

Parents can take several steps to limit their children’s exposure to phthalates, said Rojas-Jahn. Read labels carefully, and avoid any item that lists the word vinyl. Not all products are fully labeled, however, so to be on the safe side, avoid any plastic products with very shiny images or sections. “That’s often a sign that it contains vinyl,” said Rojas-Jahn.

You can also call or e-mail the product’s manufacturer to find out what materials and chemicals are used to make the product.

Your best bet, however, is to look for products labeled “PVC-free.” (PVC is the abbreviation for polyvinyl chloride.) “There are a lot of PVC-free alternatives on the shelf,” said Rojas-Jahn. “It’s not a hopeless act going to the store and looking for them.”

CHEJ and Healthy Legacy have released a downloadable “Back-to-School Guide to PCV-free School Supplies” as well as a shorter “wallet guide” that you can take with you when you go shopping

Rojas-Jahn also urged parents to contact their legislators to encourage them to support tougher regulations and policies regarding toxic chemicals in everyday items

“We don’t think parents should have to shop themselves out of the problem,” she said.

You can read the CHEJ report, “Hidden Hazards: Toxic Chemicals Inside Children’s Vinyl Back-to-School Supplies,” on the organization’s website.