Are school supplies safe for kids?

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Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency of Denmark conducted a study of the toxicity of a class of products that is close to children: school supplies. The levels of toxic chemicals -- notably phthalates -- were measured in different school items, such as erases, bags and pencil cases. The goal was to determine whether phtalate levels were high enough to be harmful.

What were the results? Before we get to that, let's first examine the cause for concern.

Children are easily at risk

Children are the most sensitive exposure to chemicals, whether in food, clothing or other everyday items. Because their bodies are growing and their nervous systems are still developing, they are particularly vulnerable to chemicals which are harmful.

Children are additionally at risk because they sometimes eat, chew or lick objects which aren't meant for consumption. Thus exposure can occur from products that we wouldn't normally consider problematic. We pay much more attention to foods and drugs to ascertain their safety, but there are many other products that deserve equally close scrutiny.

Why the concern?

Phthalates are a common class of chemicals that are added to plastics to make them softer. They are often found in PVC, and with time they can slowly seep out of the material. They have been linked with developmental problems as well as with asthma and hormonal imbalances. As a result, it's best to avoid products that contain too high levels of phthalates.

It appears that in small amounts, phthalates aren't that harmful. But it's important to monitor their levels, especially in individuals which are particularly sensitive, such as children, and in cases where there is extended contact, such as toys or other children's products like school supplies.

In fact, in most countries toys have very strict rules for their chemical content. Where many other everyday products contain some small amounts of harmful compounds, toys are very thoroughly tested to make sure that they are safe.

Dangerous school supplies?

The study conducted by the Danish EPA addresses an important concern: school supplies, like toys, often end up chewed or licked by children. Erasers are an example. However, here is the problem: unlike toys, school supplies don't benefit from strict testing rules. Their chemical content isn't closely monitored.

The study selected a number of school items, ranging from bags to pencil cases. Erasers were considered important to test, as well, because their size and softness make them easy for children to chew on.

What were the results?

It was found that in normal use, the school items did not put children at risk of exposure to phthalates. The products did not have enough phthalate content to be harmful just from contact.

However, chewed and swallowed bits of erasers were found to result in exposure of up to four times the acceptable daily level. Although this result assumes a worst-case scenario of a child chewing on erasers for an hour every day, the conclusion is that this kind of behaviour can be dangerous.

Is the danger real?

The reality is that most children will not chew enough erasers to really make this a problem. Chemicals such as phthalates are dangerous if the exposure happens consistently over large periods of time. If a child were to chew erasers for an hour each day for several years, there might be cause for concern, but not if it just happens a few times.

In summary, there's no doubt that eating things that aren't meant to be eaten can easily be dangerous. In this case, erasers have been shown to be a potentially dangerous if consumed. If the erasers were made without any phthalates or other harmful chemicals, they might be less dangerous to eat, but that wouldn't make them healthy. Nevertheless, in conclusion, if there are phthalate-free erasers available, they are one more way in which we can protect our children and ensure their health.