Mom fights to ban toxins in school supplies

A recent study has found high levels of toxic chemicals in children's school supplies -- levels so high that, if they were toys instead of backpacks, lunchboxes, and raincoats, they'd be banned by the U.S. government. And one Massachusetts mom is fighting back with a petition to make these products safer.

The chemicals, called phthalates, are commonly used to soften plastic and make vinyl. They're in everything from food packaging to plastic bottles, and are also used to make household cleaners and soaps smell good longer. According to a 2012 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, exposure to phthalates can change how the muscle cells in your heart function; exposure has also been linked to increased rates of asthma, early puberty, ADHD, diabetes, cancer, birth defects, and obesity. Children and pregnant women are especially at risk.

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The study, "Hidden Hazards: Toxic Chemicals Inside Children's Vinyl Back-to-School Supplies, was conducted in August by the advocacy group The Center for Health, Environment & Justice. Though the group tested only 20 products, 75 percent of them were found to have high levels of phthalates -- and none of them had labels warning consumers about it. Of the products tested, one backpack, two lunch boxes, and three raincoats were made by Disney.

"They're all made from vinyl. And in order to use vinyl, they need to use phthalates," Lori Popkewitz Alper, who launched a petition on calling for Disney to stop using phthalates in their products, told Yahoo! Shine in an interview. "It was alarming to me when the study was released, showing that 75 percent of children's back-to-school supplies contain these high levels of phthalates. I felt a need to speak for people who may not have the awareness or the resources to know about this information."

Disney denies that their vinyl products are dangerous. “Producing safe and high quality products is our top priority and we meet or exceed all applicable safety standards set forth by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the FDA and numerous other safety organizations," they said in a statement. "We will continue to closely monitor health assessments and government recommendations on all materials used in our products.”

Unlike children's toys, from which phthalates have been banned since 2008, children's school supplies aren't regulated at all. According to the study, phthalates can migrate from inside the vinyl to the surface, where it can be released into the air or absorbed into other things. "Children may be exposed to elevated levels of these toxic substances by using these school supplies," the study pointed out. "Unfortunately, while phthalates have been banned in children's toys, similar safeguards do not yet exist to keep them out of lunchboxes, backpacks, binders, and other children's school supplies." That means the container in which your kid keeps her lunch could be leeching chemicals into her food -- and manufacturers don't even have to tell you about it.

The Center for Health, Environment & Justice sent 20 popular back-to-school items -- a mix of backpacks, raincoats, rainbows, three-ring binders, and lunch boxes -- to a New York lab for analysis. Six different kinds of phthalates -- DEP, DMP, DBP, DEHP, BBP, and DnOP -- and some heavy metals like lead and mercury were detected on the products.

"The Amazing Spider-Man Backpack contained an estimated 52,700 ppm (parts per million) and 14,900 ppm of DEHP in two different locations," researchers wrote. "If this product were a children's toy, it would be over 52 times the limit set by the Federal ban." Disney's Princess lunchbox contained an estimated 29,800 ppm of DEHP -- more than 29 times the limit if it had been a toy.

Parents can limit their children's exposure to phthalates by limiting the amount of vinyl and PVC plastic they use around the house, suggests Alper, an eco-wellness consultant and former lawyer who writes for and runs Groovy Green Livin', a green lifestyles blog.

"We really haven't had much vinyl in our house," she says. Reading about the study inspired the Bedford, Massachusetts mom of three to launch her petition, which has gathered about 55,000 signatures in less than three weeks. "I try to keep away from a lot of different plastics, especially when it's something that comes in contact with food."

Instead of disposable baggies, plastic containers, and vinyl lunch boxes, her family uses reusable cloth bags and stainless steel containers for packed lunches. "It's not only safer, it's also cost effective," Alper points out. "Once you have that stuff up front, you can just throw it in the washing machine and it's really easy to just continuously reuse." While she says she hasn't figured out an alternative to vinyl three-ring binders, her kids -- who are 12, 10, and 8 -- don't care to wear character themed vinyl raincoats, boots, or backpacks.

"You just want to make sure that you're not buying things with PVC or vinyl in them," she advises. "Some things are labeled and some things are not, so you really do have to do a little bit of legwork to make sure you're purchasing something that's safe."

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