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Head back to school with EWG's green shopping tips

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Every year around this time, the school supply list shows up in our mailbox. You know the one, where teachers tell you exactly what to bring on the first day to fill the new classroom with the necessities that don't last from year to year and aren't provided by the school. Sometimes they even specify brand names! But that doesn't stop some of us from asking whether the items on the list are safe for our children, or how we can pick the safest - and greenest - options. Which is exactly why EWG put together some back-to-school shopping tips this year. To make it easier on us parents to make safer choices, without spending every waking minute doing product research!

We focused on these 11 common product types that children often use (and parents are asked to buy) at school: 

1. Art supplies Many contain toxic chemicals that are not suitable for children -- especially younger ones. Pay special attention to these: Paints should be water-based to avoid solvents and colored with natural, non-metal pigments. Don't buy polymer clays that stay soft at room temperature or can be hardened in a home oven -- they're made from PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and often contain phthalates. Consider making your own "clay" out of common baking ingredients instead. Note: A label that says "Conforms to ASTM D-4236" simply means the product is labeled as required, not necessarily safe.

2. Crayons & markers Common crayons often contain paraffin wax, which is made from crude oil. Look for alternatives like soy and beeswax. Don't buy dry-erase and permanent markers, which contain solvents. Be wary of plastic-encased crayons or scented markers -- scents encourage kids to sniff them, and the chemicals used in the fragrances are not listed on the label. Try a pencil highlighter instead of the familiar plastic ones.

3. Glue Try to minimize kids' exposures to extra-strong or instant adhesives like epoxies, model and "super" glues; they contain toxic solvents. Water-based glues are safer bets, though most are made from petrochemicals. Some better options are: glue sticks, white/yellow/clear "school" glue. Stock up today. Children should not use rubber cement.

4. Hand washing Choose sanitizers with ethanol (ethyl alcohol) but no fragrance, and liquid hand soaps without triclosan, triclocarban or fragrance. Check this product list in EWG's Cosmetics Database. And remember: Plain soap and water is often just as effective! Learn more in our Healthy Home Tip.

5. Backpacks If it's time for a new one, look for natural fibers and skip those made with PVC. If natural fibers aren't an option, polyester and nylon are better than PVC. (Check the label for #3, the symbol for PVC, or look for "no PVC" on the label.) Labels don't always list the material, so you may need to contact manufacturers or visit their websites. 6. Lunch boxes Because they hold food, it's especially important that lunch boxes be made from non-toxic materials with NO lead paint, PVC, BPA and antimicrobial chemicals. Some options are: cotton lunch bags, BPA-free plastic or unpainted stainless steel. Reuse utensils from home and pack food in reusable, rather than disposable, containers (such as lightweight stainless steel or #1, 2, 4 or 5 plastics).

7. Beverage bottles Skip commercial bottled water -- it's expensive, wastes resources and the water quality isn't necessarily better than tap. Instead, send your child to school with filtered water and other beverages in a reusable bottle made from BPA-free plastic, BPA-free aluminum or stainless steel, such as Klean Kanteen. Click here to order yours on Amazon. Take a minute to learn more about the downsides of bottled water.

8. Pencils and pens Pick plain wooden pencils (no paint or glossy coating) made from sustainable wood or recycled newspaper. Skip the scented ones. Try to use recycled ballpoint pens. Find recycled pencils on Amazon.

9. Notebooks and binders Avoid plastic covers on binders and spiral notebooks; they're usually made from PVC (#3 plastic). Opt for recycled cardboard or natural fibers instead, or look for "no PVC" on the label.

10. Paper products Look for recycled paper, available here, made from at least 30 percent post-consumer waste (PCW) that isn't whitened with chlorine bleach. Or consider virgin paper made from alternative fibers or sustainably managed forests. Choose 100 percent recycled tissues and paper towels made with PCW and without chlorine bleach. Avoid added lotion, fragrance and dyes.

11. Cell phones A lot of kids have cell phones. If purchasing a new phone, choose one with lower radiation ("SAR" value) by searching EWG's cell phone database. Teach your child that when she's not using it, she should turn it off, store it in her backpack or somewhere else away from the body, and text instead of talking. Get our eight cell phone safety tips.

Get the guide. You can download these tips, too, 'cause they're mighty handy when you're staring at all those crayons, notebooks, and markers in the store!


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