It won't be long before South Florida parents will be sending their kids back to school. That means new backpacks, binders, lunch boxes and other school supplies. Most people don't think of those rather innocuous items as potentially hazardous. However, school supplies are allowed to contain dangerous chemicals that have been banned or restricted in many toys.
Of key concern is a class of chemicals called phthalates. These are used in a number of vinyl, PVC and other products to make them softer. They can be found in everything from pipes to medical devices, but also in everyday items that we and our children touch, like food packaging, school supplies and rain gear.
Many school supplies are made with PVC, which stands for polyvinyl chloride. Phthalates are used to soften the PVC and make it more flexible.
The presence of potential hazards in school supplies is not a new discovery. Several years ago, researchers found that school supplies contained phthalates at levels 40 to 50 times greater than those allowed in toys and that some items contained multiple phthalates.
We're exposed to potentially harmful chemicals every day. So, why is this exposure more dangerous for children? First, they are smaller, so the same level of exposure to toxins has a larger impact on them than on adults. Secondly, children are more likely to put things in their mouth, thereby ingesting toxins.
What can parents shopping for school supplies do to limit the number of toxins to which their children are exposed?
- Avoid supplies made with PVC or vinyl. They may not be clearly labeled. Therefore, if you see a "V" or "3" on a plastic product, it probably contains potentially-harmful chemicals.
- Avoid plastic products. Buy canvas backpacks, cloth-covered binders and stainless-steel lunch boxes.
- Smell the product. If it has a strong plastic smell, it probably contains phthalates.
If a product used by children is found to have a dangerously-high level of phthalates, the manufacturer may be liable for any harm caused. Unless consumers report problems that their children have experienced, the product may continue to be sold as-is. By speaking up and reporting issues, parents can help prevent injury to other children.