Chemicals banned from children's toys are lurking in some school supplies, according to a new report. The chemicals, called phthalates, have been linked to chronic conditions like asthma and diabetes, and even developmental disorders.
But don't go tossing those backpacks and binders, experts say.
The health effects of phthalates, which are used to soften vinyl plastics, are unclear, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But a Virginia-based advocacy group argues the chemicals should be controlled.
"While phthalates have been banned in children's toys, similar safeguards don't yet exist to keep them out of lunchboxes, backpacks and other children's school supplies," Mike Schade of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, which released the report Sunday, said in a statement.
Schade and colleagues tested kids' backpacks, binders, lunch boxes, raincoats and rubber boots, and found that three-quarters of the products contained phthalate levels exceeding the 0.1 percent federal limit imposed for toys.
"These dangerous chemicals manufactured by Exxon Mobil have no place in our children's school supplies," said Schade. "It's time for Congress to move forward and pass the Safe Chemicals Act to protect our children from toxic exposure."
Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) co-sponsored the Safe Chemicals Act, which would give the Environmental Protection Agency more control over chemicals used in consumer products.
"When kids take their lunch to school this fall, they shouldn't be carrying it in a lunchbox laden with anything other than a nutritious meal, packed by mom," Schumer said in a statement. "We don't allow high levels of these toxic chemicals in children's toys and we certainly shouldn't allow them in back-to-school products."
Phthalates were banned from children's toys and teething rings in 2008 because of their potential to leach from plastic that's chewed or sucked. But some experts say theories about phthalate exposure from school supplies and rain gear don't hold water.
"Presuming kids aren't eating, sucking or chewing on these products, I imagine the risk is pretty small," said Dr. Marcel Casavant, chief of pharmacology and toxicology at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
But eating food from containers made with phthalates can also lead to exposure, according to the CDC. And phthalate dust can be inhaled or transferred to children's hands and ingested.
Nevertheless, the health effects of phthalate exposure are far from proven.
"These chemicals have dramatic effects in some animal models at very high doses, but as far as links to human health, in most situations, we don't really know much at all," said Casavant. "I'm not about to go throw away my kids' backpacks, lunch boxes or binders in search of phthalate-free products."
The Center for Health, Environment and Justice is a non-profit organization founded in 1981 to prevent "harm to human health caused by exposure to environmental threats," according to its website. In addition to phthalates, it campaigns against polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, nuclear power and fracking.
The American Chemistry Council, a plastics trade group, said decisions about chemical safety should be based on "the full weight of the scientific evidence available."
"Phthalates are some of the most tested substances in commerce and have been reviewed by multiple regulatory agencies in the United States and Europe, including reviews that specifically examined the presence of phthalates in typical school supplies," the group said in a statement. "Government agencies have found that phthalates neither migrate out of products easily, nor build up in the body. There is no reliable evidence that phthalates have ever caused any harm to any human in more than fifty years of use."