Healthy Children Project
by Maureen Swanson, HCP Director

It’s hard to believe how quickly the summer is swooshing by, and that it’s time to get kids (and teachers) ready to go back to school again. Below are some tips for selecting school supplies that are free of certain toxic chemicals that can put kids’ health and learning potential at risk.

Environmentally healthy school supplies:

 Backpacks, lunch bags, binders and other items often use PVC, or polyvinyl chloride – a type of plastic. PVC can contain toxic chemicals including phthalates, lead, cadmium and organotins. These chemicals are linked to problems with brain development and behavior, as well as other health problems such as asthma. Congress has banned phthalates from children’s toys but not from school supplies.

  •  Avoid backpacks, lunch bags and other items with a label that has the recycling symbol with the number 3, and/or the initials PVC or the word “vinyl”.
  •  Look for products with a label that says “PVC-free”. Cloth lunch boxes and backpacks and nylon umbrellas should be free of PVC.

 School supplies can also contain Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that disrupts the endocrine system and is associated with certain cancers, reproductive health concerns and behavior and attention problems.


Lunch boxes and beverage containers: Because they hold food and drink, it’s important that lunch boxes and beverage containers be made from non-toxic materials that do not include lead paint, PVC, BPA or antimicrobial chemicals.

  • Try cotton lunch bags, BPA-free plastic or unpainted stainless steel. Pack food in reusable containers such as stainless steel or plastics marked with #1, 2, 4 or 5.
  •  For drinks, choose reusable bottles made from stainless steel, BPA-free aluminum or BPA-free plastic.


Markers: Do not buy dry-erase or permanent markers; they contain solvents, which can be neurotoxic. Avoid markers with a fragrance, which contain chemicals not listed on the label, and which encourage kids to sniff them.


Glue: The safest options are glue sticks and white/yellow/clear “school” glue.


Paper products: Recycled paper, made from post-consumer waste that is not whitened with chlorine bleach is much more widely available now. 


The above information is taken largely from two sources:

  1. The Center for Health, Environment and Justice provides a guide to PVC-free products, as well as great resources for healthy schools. See
  2. The Environmental Working Group provides good “healthy home and school” tip sheets, as well as a searchable database of many different categories of products, including sunscreens, shampoos, cosmetics, and cleaning products, and ranks them according to low or non-toxicity. See: