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8 School Supplies That Could Make Your Kids Sick

Even with the best intentions, you may be packing your child's school bag with some hazardous stuff. Here's what parents should know about school supplies.

Set of school supplies on white background, top viewKucherAV/Shutterstock

Keep your guard up

As parents, we assume the school supplies made for and handed to our children are safe for them to use, however, a recent study published by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) indicates otherwise. “Potentially harmful chemicals including phthalates, asbestos, benzene, and lead were all discovered to have been contained in many of the products that we hand to our children at school,” says Morgan Statt, health and safety investigator with For this reason, it’s important for parents to do their research before purchasing. “Long-term exposure to these hazards can lead to various illnesses including cancer, developmental problems, and neurotoxicity,” she says. “Short-term effects, particularly for the ingestion or inhalation of lead, include headaches, stomach cramps, and muscle pain.” Click through to find out which school supplies might be unknowingly making your child sick. Check out these adorable back-to-school products that you’ll want to snag for yourself.

Backpack with school supplies spilling out. Back to School Suppliesmirtmirt/Shutterstock


With backpacks, Marilee Nelson, co-founder of Branch Basics and Dietary and Environmental Consultant and Materials Specialist, advises parents to avoid purchasing products that contain vinyl or Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) on the label or the recycle number “3.” “Shiny backpacks generally are made of vinyl and may contain PVC, lead, and high levels of phthalates,” she says. “Phthalates are linked to asthma, metabolic disorders such as diabetes and obesity, endocrine disruption, and more.” When picking a backpack for the new school year, she recommends opting for brands made of natural fibers like cotton, linen, hemp, or canvas or synthetic fibers such as nylon and polyester. Brands she recommends include Beatrix and Bixbee.

Owl healthy sandwich lunch box, fun food art for kidscatalin eremia/Shutterstock

Plastic lunch boxes

Many plastic lunch boxes, even the ones specially designed for children, are still made of vinyl plastic that contains phthalates. “This group of chemicals increases the flexibility of the plastic for ease of manufacturing, but it has also been linked to a number of health risks, including asthma, low IQ, altered reproductive development, and diabetes,” says Statt. “Phthalates can enter the body when children ingest food and drinks that have come into contact with phthalate-containing products.” Dabbawalla lunch bags contain no phthalates and are 100 percent toxic-free. Try these tips to beat back-to-school stress.

Open writing book on student desk, pencil, copy spaceDavid Franklin/Shutterstock

Three-ring binders

Unfortunately, many of those three-ring binders that you stock up on for your child’s new classes are also made with phthalates. “Exposure can also occur via the inhalation of dust that contains phthalate particles,” warns Statt. “Children are particularly at risk because of their hand-to-mouth behaviors—even with something as seemingly inedible as a binder.” Statt recommends choosing binders made of more sustainable materials, such as harvested wood, cloth, and recycled cardboard. “If you’re unsure as to whether or not a product contains phthalates, look for the universal recycling symbol with a ‘3’ or a ‘V’ inside it, which indicates that the product is made out of PVC (aka phthalates). Here are some PVC-free binders on Amazon.

Ringed binders with fresh paper in them Charles Knowles/Shutterstock

Paper and notebooks

Nelson recommends avoiding chlorine-bleached paper products whenever possible. “This is an environmental issue, as paper mills using chlorine release trillions of gallons of wastewater, contaminating the air, water, and larger environment,” she says. “Choose unbleached, processed chlorine free (PCF) recycled paper products with a high content of post-consumer waste recycled (PCW) content, if possible,” she says.

Crayons and pastels lined up isolated on white background with copy spacemmstudiodesign/Shutterstock


“The U.S. PIRG recently released findings that confirmed certain crayon brands contained asbestos, a fibrous mineral whose exposure is linked to mesothelioma and lung cancer,” says Statt. “Although asbestos is legally allowed to be present in these crayons, experts and government officials say that it is unnecessary to expose children to the toxin.” Luckily, there are a number of things parents can look for when buying art supplies for their kids. Statt recommends you check for the “AP” label from the Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI), which indicates the product is non-toxic. “If you don’t see this present, check for the words ‘children’s product certificate,’ which indicates the product has passed third-party testing for safety standards. If you don’t want to go through the hassle of checking products, she recommends these crayons, which are made from 100 percent pure beeswax and are both natural and non-toxic. Check out these amazing Amazon deals for back to school.

colored markers isolated on white backgroundoksana2010/Shutterstock


Many markers being sold on the market contact a probable carcinogen, benzene, which has been linked to leukemia and disruptions in kidney and liver function. “The U.S. PIRG has found benzene to be present in markers, which is alarming,” says Statt. “Short-term symptoms of breathing in benzene can include dizziness, headaches, and drowsiness.” Similarly to crayons, she recommends checking for the “AP” label or for the words “children’s product certificate” on the packaging. “A great place to start for markers are Crayola and Jot washable markers, which both tested negative for benzene and related compounds.”

recycling, reuse, garbage disposal, environment and ecology concept - close up of empty used crashed plastic water bottles on tableSyda Productions/Shutterstock

Water bottles

While we’ve known about the dangers of lead—developmental problems, anemia, and cardiovascular effects—for the better part of the last century, traces of the metallic element are still being found in water bottles. In fact, some water bottles were recently recalled by the CPSC for testing positive for lead. Statt also urges parents to avoid purchasing any reusable water bottles for their children that contain phthalates or bisphenol-A (BPA), as these are also linked to health issues.

“Although the CPSC has recalled the lead-laden water bottles from store shelves, it is still worth taking a look at the reusable water bottles you’ve already purchased to make sure they don’t contain harmful chemicals,” she says. Consider this kid-friendly option from Klean Kanteen that’s designed for children ages 4 and older.

Creative artist workplace flat lay, mockup. top view on table with blank sketchbook, pencils, paintbrushes and dye palettes. Art, workshop, painting, drawing, craft, creativity conceptGolubovy/Shutterstock

Art supplies

Nelson recommends avoiding products with “CL” (cautionary label), which indicates it contains harmful ingredients. Instead, she suggests choosing products with “AP” (approved product), CP (certified products), or HL (health label). “The Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) is a nonprofit membership organization made up of art supply manufacturers that voluntarily agree to have their materials evaluated by independent toxicologists and tested by accredited labs for safety,” she says. “Note: These labels do not guarantee that a product is completely free of harmful chemicals, so it’s still important that you investigate each product individually.” According to parents, these back-to-school supplies are a waste of money.

Disclosure: This post is brought to you by Reader’s Digest editors, who aim to highlight products and services you might find interesting. If you buy them, we may get a small share of revenue from our partners, such as Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. We frequently receive products free of charge from manufacturers to test. This does not drive our decision as to whether or not a product is featured or recommended. We welcome your feedback. Have something you think we should know about? Email us at [email protected]

Jenn Sinrich
Jenn Sinrich is an experienced digital and social editor in New York City. She's written for several publications including SELF, Women's Health, Fitness, Parents, American Baby, Ladies' Home Journal and more.She covers various topics from health, fitness and food to pregnancy and parenting. In addition to writing, Jenn also volunteers with Ed2010, serving as the deputy director to Ed's Buddy System, a program that pairs recent graduates with young editors to give them a guide to the publishing industry and to navigating New York.When she's not busy writing, editing or reading, she's enjoying and discovering the city she's always dreamed of living in with her loving fiancé, Dan, and two feline friends, Janis and Jimi. Visit her website: Jenn Sinrich.

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