Healthy Back to School: Avoiding Toxic PVC

By Rachel Sarnoff

Is your child’s backpack filled with dangerous chemicals? Each year, the Center for Health, Environment & Justice tests back to school products to help parents find safer back to school supplies for their kids.

This year, they found harmful levels of phthalates and vinyl in 20 popular back to school school products—including backpacks, lunchboxes, binders and raingear—at levels that would be illegal if the products were toys.

Linked to obesity, asthma, diabetes and more, phthalates in school supplies are dangerous—and ubiquitous. Luckily, avoiding them is easy.

In 2008, Congress permanently banned three types of phthalates—DEHP, DMP and BBP, all of which were found in the school supplies—in any amount greater than .1 percent in children’s toys, teethers and feeding products.

But school supplies don’t fall into any of those categories and so are not regulated. As a result, phthalate levels found in 75% of the school supplies tested were greater than .1 percent—by far.

For example, the Disney Princess Lunchbox contained 29,800 ppm of the phthalate DEHP—more than 29 times the limit set by the federal ban. (Moms got so mad about this they started two separate petitions—on MomsRising and—that together garnered thousands of signatures. Click through to add yours)

So what, exactly, is wrong with PVC in back to school supplies?

  1. Typically used to soften plastics like PVC (also known as vinyl), even low levels of phthalates have been linked to obesity and asthma.
  2. Often referred to as the “poison plastic,” PVC can contain lead and cadmium, which are known to cause health issues and leaches dioxin, a known carcinogen, into the environment.
  3. In 2012, PVC was even linked to diabetes, a condition that now affects 25 million Americans.

Luckily, avoiding PVC is easy. Soft plastic vinyl products are easy to recognize because of their distinctive “new shower curtain” smell. For everything else, look for the number three in the chasing arrow symbol somewhere on the package.

Then remember this rhyme: If it reads the number three, it’s PVC—and not for me!


Rachel SarnoffAbout The Author

Better known as “Mommy Greenest,” Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff is a journalist, consultant, sustainability advocate and former CEO of Healthy Child Healthy World who was Editor in Chief of Children magazine—before she had three of her own. Rachel was featured in Los Angeles and Lucky magazines and appeared on “The Today Show” and “CNN Headline News,” among others, to share advice about healthier living with less judgement. The author of The Big List of Things That Suck and partner at Give + Take swap shop in Los Angeles, Rachel also publishes, where “you shouldn’t have to be a scientist to raise healthy kids.” Follow her and at





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