Toxic Chemicals in Kids’ School Supplies. How Real Is the Threat?

Phthalates, BPA and toxic lead paint: How safe are toys and school supplies made for children?

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School bags and lunch boxes in cubbyholes

A recent report released by the advocacy group Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ) says high levels of toxic chemicals called phthalates, some of which were banned in children’s toys in 2008, are present in many children’s vinyl school supplies. However, not everyone is convinced of the risk.

The study examined 20 children’s back-to-school products that included Disney-, Spider-Man– and Dora the Explorer–brand school supplies like vinyl lunch boxes, backpacks, three-ring binders, raincoats and rain boots. They found that 75% of the products had elevated levels of phthalates, often called plasticizers, which are used to make plastics more flexible and difficult to break. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), they are found in thousands of products like vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils, automotive plastics, plastic clothes and personal-care products like soaps, shampoos and nail polishes.

(MORE: Toxins Found in Nail Polishes Claiming to Be ‘Nontoxic’)

For example, the report says the Dora the Explorer backpack had phthalate levels over 69 times higher than the federal limit for toys, while the Amazing Spider-Man lunch box had 27 times the federal limit and the Disney Princess lunch box contained 29 times the limit.

“School supplies are supposed to help our children with their education, they shouldn’t be harming their health. We don’t allow high levels of these toxic chemicals in children’s toys, and we certainly shouldn’t allow them in back-to-school products,” said New York Senator Charles Schumer in a statement.

Various studies link phthalates to birth defects, obesity and infertility — even potentially diabetes in women.

(MORE: Toxic Bling: Jewelry Contains Hazardous Levels of Lead and Other Chemicals)

However, members of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a group that often defends chemical use, say these warnings are unfounded and parents shouldn’t be concerned. ACSH medical and executive director Dr. Gilbert Ross says studies linking phthalates to everything from hormone imbalances to obesity either lack evidence or are based on high-dose rodent studies with no relationship to humans.

Ross cites the work of an expert panel that was held from 1998 to 2000 by the National Toxicology Program, part of the National Institutes of Health, which concluded there was no substantial evidence that phthalates caused adverse health effects. Although Congress has regulated the chemicals, groups remain divided on just how dangerous they are for long-term health.

“There is not a shred of evidence that exposure to any such products will cause harm to anybody of any age or size,” says Ross. “To have [the CHEJ] go public with this report and generate media attention, it plays on parents’ quite legitimate fears for their children’s health and safety. But it’s based upon experiments without relationship to human risk.”

(MORE: Exposure to Common Chemicals May Weaken Vaccine Response)

So are the chemicals harmful or not? The CDC currently says the harmful effects of phthalates for humans are unknown and further research is needed.

Still, advocates who favor the better-safe-than-sorry approach are against the use of phthalates in any products and are pushing to pass the Safe Chemicals Act, which would provide heightened surveillance of chemical use in consumer products. The act is sponsored by Schumer and New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg.