Hidden toxins found in children’s back-to-school supplies – ‘Our chemical safety system is broken’

Each year, Center for Health, Environment & Justice tests children’s back-to-school supplies for toxic chemicals. Each year, the organization finds toxins. Some are considered “endocrine disrupting chemicals” that can mimic or suppress hormones and cause damage at extremely low levels of exposure.

“Parents shouldn’t need to be chemical detectives,” said Mike Schade, markets campaign director at CHEJ. “Our chemical safety system is broken.”

While it is widely recognized additional research needs to be done, medical and scientific organizations are sounding the alarm about the levels of childhood exposure to environmental chemicals.

Dr. Theo Colborn, president of the not-for-profit Endocrine Disruption Exchange, said children today are exposed to unprecedented levels of environmental endocrine disrupting chemicals that research has linked to cancer, autism, asthma, diabetes, obesity, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and ADHD.

CHEJ hopes its 2013 guide, scheduled for release in early August, will alert parents about these hazardous chemicals and provide them with better, safer alternatives. The not-for-profit environmental organization also hopes its report pressures corporations to clean up their products. The 2013 report had not been released by press time, but said this year’s findings look similar to last year’s.

Last year’s report, “Hidden Hazards: Toxic Chemicals Inside Children’s Vinyl Back-to-School Supplies” (http://chej.org/wp-content/uploads/HiddenHazardsReportFINAL.pdf), found 80 percent of the children’s back-to-school supplies it tested contained phthalates, a chemical widely considered to be an endocrine disruptor. It is used to soften plastic.

The government determined phthalates pose a human health risk and banned the chemical from children’s toys in 2008 . . . but not from back-to-school supplies.

The CHEJ study found 75 percent of the back-to-school supplies it tested had phthalates at such high levels they would be illegal in toys.

The study found four out of four backpacks tested contained phthalates. Four out of four lunch boxes contained phthalates. Three out of four 3-ring binders tested contained phthalates. Three out of four children’s rainboots contained phthalates. Two out of four children’s raincoats tested contained phthalates.

Schade said parents should avoid vinyl or only purchase products labeled phthalate-free. To be safe, choose non-plastic products whenever possible, the organization advises.

Disney ranked poorly in the CHEJ study in 2012, and Schade said, “Disney is the world’s largest licenser of consumer products. They are engrained in the thoughts and hopes of kids. Yet Disney has not yet fully publicly responded (to the CHEJ report).”

Because of its size, Schade said if Disney decided to go phthalate-free, it would move the market in the right direction.

Disney Consumer Products responded to an emailed question about the CHEJ report finding phthalates in its back-to-school supplies with a statement saying the U.S. Food and Drug Administration “is currently evaluating the health effects of BPA and phthalates in consumer products . . . . Please know that product safety is a top priority at DisneyStore.com. All products sold on our website are tested to meet or exceed applicable product safety laws and standards.”

According the CHEJ 2012 report, Disney’s Amazing Spider Man backpack contained an estimated 52,700 parts per million and 14,900 parts per million of the phthalate DEHP in two different locations. If this product were a children’s toy, it would be over 52 times the limit set by the federal ban on phthalates in toys. Disney’s Brave Backpack, featuring the princess Brave and marketed to girls, contained an estimated 18,600 ppm of DnOP, another phthalate. If this product were a children’s toy with any part that could be placed in a child’s mouth, it would be 18 times over the limit set by the federal ban.

The CHEJ study also found lead and cadmium on school supplies.

“Children touch and handle these products. There is contact with skin. Phthalates volatilize and cling to dust that is breathed in,” Schade said, citing testing by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found measurable phthalates in 95 percent of Americans. Children have the highest exposure, he said.

Phthalates are linked to birth defects, infertility, early puberty, asthma, ADHD, obesity, diabetes and cancer. Asthma is the No. 1 cause of school absenteeism among children. Phthalates are found in the air and dust of homes, schools, blood and breast milk. Phthalates are nonmonotonic, meaning that maximum damage can occur at very low levels of exposure. That’s contrary to the notion that increasing levels of exposure cause increasing damage.

“We want to empower and educate parents,” Schade said. “All Americans care about health. This year or next year or in the next few years we will see regulation of these chemicals in consumer products.”

Schade said CHEJ does fundraising all year to cover the costs of its annual testing of back-to-school supplies.

L.L. Bean merchandise has been phthalate-free since 2002.

“We have had a lab in-house for many years testing the safety of everything from buttons to zippers to waterproofing,” said Carolyn Beem, spokesperson for the company.

L.L. Bean also requires outside vendors to have third-party labs test their products.

Beem said “Especially with kids products, everything can be mouthed. Kids never use products according to instructions. We double test.”

Asked if this testing is more for marketing than actual safety, she said, “We think it’s important, and we think the concern is science-based.”

For a list of PVC-free school supplies, go to http://www.chej.org/publications/PVCGuide/2010/2010%20PVCFree.pdf

Besides L.L.Bean, CHEJ lists other phthalate-free backpacks including Jansport, Land’s End, Kid’s Travel Zone and others.

Dr. Sue Sauder, a pediatric endocrinologist at OSF Children’s Hospital of Illinois and with the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria, said parents should understand that if these chemicals get in the body, they can potentially cause changes but nothing has been definitively proven.

She referred to a statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics expressing support for the Safe Chemicals Act of 2013, legislation designed to give the Environmental Protection Agency more authority over the regulation of chemicals. The American Academy of Pediatrics has called on Congress to address this “urgent and ongoing threat to child health posed by environmental chemical exposures.”

“It’s not only school supplies. It’s plastic, pesticides, processed foods. People were not exposed to these chemicals 100 years ago,” Sauder said.

The Endocrine Society has a position paper on endocrine disrupting chemicals stating that even though testing has not definitively linked these chemicals to human health problems, the evidence is strong enough that the precautionary principle should be applied and the federal government should develop a public awareness campaign warning of potential risks related to exposure to these chemicals that are present in the environment and the food supply.

Children face the highest exposures to phthalate, the CHEJ report states, citing analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and prevention.

“It’s not just the back to school supplies but the communities where these products are manufactured. These are hot-spot communities, often low-income and people of color who are most affected,” Schade said. “We want to empower and educate parents to make a choice. Call on major brands to step up to the plate.”

Clare Howard

Clare Howard is the editor of the Community Word. She can be reached at communityword@yahoo.com

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