Report:

Safer School Supplies: Shopping Guide

Consumer Guide for Finding Non-Toxic School Supplies

Executive Summary

With this Safer School Supplies: Shopping Guide, parents, teachers, and students can make more informed decisions while shopping for school supplies this Back to School season. We want to give parents and teachers the option to choose school supplies that do not contain toxic chemicals. This Shopping Guide should serve as a handy tool for finding products free of several types of toxic chemicals.

We conducted laboratory tests for toxic chemicals in popular school supplies. Researchers tested markers (washable and dry-erase), crayons, glue (liquid and sticks), spiral notebooks, rulers, 3-ring binders, lunchboxes, and water bottles for toxic chemicals such as lead, asbestos, phthalates, BTEX compounds (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene), and bisphenol-A (BPA). We purchased the supplies from across the country at a wide variety of stores including big box stores, dollar stores, drug stores, online retailers, and arts and crafts stores.

Among the school supplies surveyed, we found Playskool crayons from Dollar Tree that contained asbestos, a 3-ring binder from Dollar Tree that contained high levels of phthalates, a dry-erase markers containing benzene, and we highlight two water bottles that have been recalled due to high levels of lead. 

This guide not only lists the potentially dangerous school supplies that we found and why and how the school supplies can harm students, but also lists the school supplies that tested negative for chemicals of concern.

The presence of toxic hazards in school supplies highlights the need for constant vigilance on the part of government agencies and the public to ensure that school supplies containing toxic chemicals are removed from store shelves.

MASSPIRG Education Fund staff and affiliates sent 27 school supplies to an independent laboratory to test for chemicals of concern. The problems we found include:

* Crayons. We tested six types of crayons for asbestos and one tested positive for tremolite: Playskool crayons (36 count) that we purchased at Dollar Tree. We tested the green color crayon. Asbestos is a known carcinogen and can lead to serious health conditions, including lung cancer and mesothelioma. Pictures of the tremolite fibers taken from the laboratory are included in Appendix A.

* 3-ring binders. We tested three 3-ring binders for phthalates, and one tested positive for phthalates: Jot-brand blue binder from Dollar Tree contained 240,000 parts per million (ppm) DEHP, and 8,000 ppm DINP. Research has documented the potential damage of exposure to phthalates at crucial stages of development. Studies have linked phthalates to asthma, childhood obesity and lower IQ scores.

* Water bottles. We tested two water bottles, both of which tested negative for the presence of lead. Two products reviewed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) have been recalled for high levels of lead.

* Markers. We tested two brands of washable markers for BTEX compounds that tested negative. We tested two types of dry-erase markers for benzene and phthalates, which tested negative for phthalates. One tested positive for benzene. Benzene is a probable carcinogen linked to dangerous disruptions in sexual reproduction, liver and kidney function and immune system functioning.

Our three takeaways are:

1) Some of these school products contain toxic chemicals that have been recalled. The government mandates that products for children should have less than 100 ppm of lead. If your family owns a water bottle described in this Guide that has been recalled for having above 100 ppm, immediately stop using the water bottle and return it to the store.

2) Some of these school products contact toxics that, while not  banned by the federal government, could possibly pose a risk to children. It is legal to have asbestos in crayons. However, scientists and government agencies point out that it is unnecessary to expose children to asbestos. Manufacturers selling asbestos-containing crayons should voluntarily recall the crayons and reformulate the ingredients. Similarly, it is legal to have phthalates in some back to school products, but scientists recommend that children not be exposed to high levels of phthalates.

3) Given that it is often legal to sell products containing these toxic substances, parents can do several things. First, look for the Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) "AP" label, letting consumers know that the product is non-toxic. If there is no AP label, look for the manufacturer's "children's product certificate" on the product, which assures parents that the product has been tested in a third-party laboratory under government specifications. If neither of those labels is on the product, parents can reach out to the manufacturers and ask that they start using AP certification, or that they meet the requirements needed for a children's product certificate.

We have the following recommendations:

* Dollar Tree and Playskool should recall the asbestos-tainted crayons and remove them from store shelves. They should also contact customers to warn them about the crayons.

* Dollar Tree and Jot should recall the 3-ring binder that contained high levels of phthalates and remove them from store shelves. They should also contact customers to warn them about the binders.

* The Board Dudes and Amazon should recall their dry-erase markers that contain benzene and remove them from store shelves.

* Policymakers should maintain the CPSC's funding and authorities to protect the public and mandate the CPSC to regularly test more children's products for toxic chemicals.

* Parents and teachers should look for the AP label posted on items by the Art & Creative Materials Institute ("ACMI"). For items not certified by the ACMI, parents should look for a manufacturer's label certifying that the product meets CPSC guidelines for children. 

* Parents should demand that manufacturers without a label start carrying a label, and that the products meet the safety guidelines.

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