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Claire Moshenberg's picture

The first day of school is around the corner, and back-to-school shopping season is in full swing. Kids spend most of their crucial developmental years in school buildings, interacting with their school supplies non-stop throughout the day, which makes picking the healthiest, least toxic supplies super important. Luckily, there are a few easy things you can do make this school year less toxic. This Tips Tuesday, we’re giving you the top five tips for safer back to school shopping:

Say no to PVC: PVC, also known as “The Poison Plastic,” is commonly used in lunch boxes, backpacks, and binders. This pesky plastic has earned its nickname by containing toxic chemicals like phthalates, lead, cadmium, and organotins. Congress banned phthalates from kids' toys this year because of safety. So why are they still lurking in the school supplies kids use every day?

The best way to avoid PVC is to choose non-plastic products whenever possible. If you do purchase plastic products, don’t worry: There are a few easy ways to spot PVC. Be on the look out for the word "vinyl" or the letters V or PVC. Check the number at the bottom of your plastic goods and avoid the number 3. Use this rhyme from CHEJ to remember which plastic number to avoid: Bad news comes in 3s, don't buy PVC

Lunch and the lunch box: PVC is only part of the lunch box problem. When you’re shopping for lunch boxes, look for a warning label that says “WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, and birth defects or other reproductive harm.” This particular warning means that the product is more likely to contain lead. Skip plastic lunch bags, which are often made out of PVC, or coated with PVC on the inside. Instead, choose a cloth lunch bag. You can even use one of these cute tutorials to make your own DIY lunch bag.

And lets not forget about what goes inside of your safer lunch box! Say no to plastic water bottles and invest in a reusable stainless steel bottle. Pay attention to your food packaging: Studies have found chemicals can leach from PVC food wrap into food. Try not to buy snacks packaged in plastic. Instead, pack up your own foods in PVC-free butcher paper, waxed paper, parchment paper, low density polyethylene (LDPE) or cellulose bags.

Healthier art supplies: You know those really fun clays that start off soft and then you can bake them in the oven? They're called polymer clays and unfortunately they contain PVC and phthalates. Skip the chemicals, and try an easy DIY clay recipe that uses ingredients you probably already have in your pantry.

If your little Picasso is in the market for a new set of paints, make sure to avoid oil based paints, which give off dangerous fumes. Instead, look for water-based play paints and natural fabric dyes.

Backpacks, inside and out: Stay away from backpacks with shiny plastic designs as they often contain PVC and may contain lead.  Just like with lunch boxes, be on the look out for this label: “WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, and birth defects or other reproductive harm.”  This means the product is more likely to contain lead.

Fill your non-toxic backpack with equally non-toxic supplies. CHEJ recommends keeping PVC at bay by avoiding notebooks containing metal spirals encased in colored plastic. Choose notebooks with uncovered metal  spirals instead. Binders are a hotspot for PVC: Look for a PVC free label and pick cardboard, fabric-covered, or polypropylene binders.

Shopping Toolbox: Try a few of these handy tools to make your safer back to school shopping a little easier. CHEJ gives you a spreadsheet of easy to find, PVC-free school supplies in their new Back to School Guide to PVC-Free School Supplies. If you're shopping online, check out the Good Guide's new transparency tool bar, which you can download and use with your browser. Look up toys, apparel, and kids products on, which offers a helpful widget and an app for your iPhone so you can use their guide on the go.

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