A: That’s because chemicals are not required to be tested for safety before they’re put into products, even children’s products like school supplies.
In 2008 Congress passed legislation banning phthalates in children’s toys. While phthalates have been banned in toys, they remain widespread in many other products, especially vinyl products in our homes and schools.
Over 90% of all phthalates are used to soften vinyl plastic. Phthalates are hazardous at low levels of exposure, disrupt hormones in our bodies, and have been linked to birth defects, infertility, early puberty, asthma, ADHD, obesity, diabetes, and cancer. According to testing by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children have the highest exposures to these hazardous chemicals. As a result of the widespread use of phthalates in vinyl plastic products, they have been found in the air and dust of our homes and schools, our bodies, blood and breast milk.
Phthalates in school supplies exemplifies the need to enact strong policies at the national level to protect children from toxic exposures.
The federal law regulating industrial chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), is 30 years old, outdated, and simply does not work to protect our health and environment. Of the 62,000 chemicals on the market at the time TSCA passed in 1976, the EPA has only required testing on about 200 chemicals; and it has only partially restricted five.
Legislation to revamp the 36-year-old TSCA has been introduced in the U.S. Senate. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), along with over 20 co-sponsors, has introduced the Safe Chemicals Act (S. 847), a bill that would put common sense limits on toxic chemicals. The long-awaited, landmark legislation would overhaul the way the federal government regulates chemicals commonly found in our homes, workplaces and communities. It would improve the safety of chemicals used in consumer products, increase public information on chemical safety, protect our most vulnerable populations and disproportionately affected “hot spot” communities, reform EPA’s science practices to ensure the best available science is being used to determine chemical safety, and support innovation in the marketplace and provide incentives for the development of safer chemical alternatives.
On July 25, 2012 the Safe Chemicals Act passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) and now may be voted on by the full Senate. See saferchemicals.org for more info.
Q: What are budget-conscious parents supposed to do? Your report targets the sort of school supplies that parents often find the most conveniently in popular stores and at a lower price than some others.
A: Yes, very good question.
That’s why we’ve also published our 2012 Back to School Guide to PVC-free School Supplies, which features a listing of the most common school supplies and safer alternatives in over 40 different product categories, from backpacks and binders to lunchboxes and computers.
Our research has found alternatives are widely available, and are generally affordable. In some cases the alternatives are more expensive, but generally we’ve found safer affordable alternatives are available at many major retailers.
Here are some quick tips:
· Avoid school supplies made with vinyl, as well as other vinyl products, especially those that are flexible. These products are not always labeled, although some may be labeled as “vinyl” or “PVC.”
· Purchase PVC-free school supplies made out of safer materials.
· To identify vinyl packaging, first look for the universal recycling symbol. If it has the number “3” inside it, or the letters “V” or “PVC” underneath it, you know the product is made out of PVC.
· Some products are not properly labeled, making it impossible to determine whether they contain vinyl. If you’re uncertain, e-mail or call the 1-800 number of the manufacturer or retailer and ask what type of plastic their product is made of. You have the right to know.
Q: Many parents like PVC because it's not only inexpensive, but it's easy to keep clean. Isn't it a tough sell to tell parents they need to seek out alternatives?
A: We don’t think so because there are safer alternatives out there that are also affordable and easy to keep clean.
When parents understand that vinyl schools supplies often contain phthalates, chemicals linked to asthma, ADHD and other serious health problems, we find that they’re eager to find safer products for their families. Additionally, the production and disposal of this plastic poisons workers and environmental justice communities. For instance see the new book Petrochemical America .
Mother and blogger Lori Popkewitz Alper was shocked to discover that popular Disney themed lunch boxes commonly contain PVC, so she started a petition about it. Alper explained, "I'm the mom of three school-aged boys and a green lifestyle blogger at Groovy Green Livin. I recently learned through a study conducted by The Center for Health, Environment & Justice that the lunch boxes many children carry to school contain toxic chemicals called phthalates, which have been reportedly linked to asthma, ADHD and diabetes. I started a petition at Change.org that over 57,000 people have signed asking Disney, one of the worst offenders, to clean up its act and stop selling these toxic products."
You can sign the petition to Disney here.