DR. YU: Seek out safer school supplies

Contributing writerAugust 21, 2013 

Try to avoid school supplies that contain the type of plastic made out of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. It is listed as No. 3 plastic on recycling labels.

Children’s health and safety are on every caregiver’s mind. We want to feed children safe, healthy food, make sure that they wear bicycle helmets, and stop them from jumping on the bed.

With so many concerns, school supplies may not even appear on the safety radar, but we can make safer choices about what we provide our kids to start school.

One of the biggest chemical concerns in school supplies is a type of plastic made out of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. According to the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, “PVC is unique among most plastics because it contains dangerous chemical additives such as phthalates, lead, cadmium and/or organotin, which can be toxic to your child’s health.” Many of these chemicals have known health concerns or are considered chemicals of emerging concern. Tests have shown that these chemicals can leach out of products over time and are linked to asthma, learning disabilities, obesity and other chronic health concerns. Avoid products that are labeled “vinyl” or have a number three inside of the recycling arrow. Number 3 plastics are made from PVC.

The good news is that once you know what to look for, finding safer school supplies can be easy. If there are non-plastic options such as cloth art smocks and non-coated, plain metal paper clips to choose from, that is a good place to start.

Lunch bags and boxes have grown up since we were kids! Of course, a brown paper – or better yet, a re-useable cloth bag – is always in style, but there are also light-weight stainless steel bento boxes, canisters and thermoses that work great for lunch packing. They are non-breakable, clean up well and don’t have the same health concerns as plastics. Avoid lunch boxes that are shiny plastic or have shiny plastic characters because those are usually made from vinyl. They may contain lead and unwrapped food should never be placed in them.

Stainless steel water containers are a great substitute for plastic water bottles.

Never microwave or wash plastics in the dishwasher, even if they claim to be microwavable and dishwasher safe. Even storing hot or warm food in plastic containers has been shown to leach chemicals into the food.

Finding non-PVC options for three-ring binders may be the trickiest item on the back-to-school list. They are out there but may take more detective work. Fabric-covered and sturdy cardboard binders are two choices that are available at most stores. Plastics other than PVC, such as polypropelene, are less likely to leach chemicals and they usually say PVC-free on the label.

Choose bags and backpacks without shiny plastic decals. The shiny plastic is PVC and may contain lead. Remember that lead is a well-known neurotoxin and doesn’t belong in our children’s supplies.

Start the new school year off right by choosing safer supplies to send your little (or big) one off safely. For more information on safer school supplies, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice has a Back to School Guide at www.chej.org or see our website on safer plastics at www.co.thurston.wa.us/health/ehhm/plastic.html. An environmental health educator is always happy to answer questions at 360-867-2674. The TDD line is 360-867-2603.

Dr. Diana T. Yu is the Health Officer for Thurston and Mason counties. Reach her at 360-867-2501 or yud@co.thurston.wa.us, or on Twitter at @yu4health.

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