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Reading, ’Riting, Respiratory Problems?
How to find green and healthy classroom supplies—markers, lunch boxes, and even furniture—for back to school.

My daughter will start preschool this year, and although she’s too young to pick out her own supplies and will mostly use whatever the school provides, I’m feeling nostalgic for the scent of freshly sharpened pencils and the sound of a composition notebook opening for the first time. So when my daughter’s preschool teacher asked for advice on the hunt for greener classroom supplies—from molding clay and finger paints to toy bins and pencil cases—I was eager to help with the search.

It was much tougher than I expected. Turns out, there’s not a lot of guidance for parents and teachers who are concerned about the safety of items that line classroom shelves and fill students’ backpacks. “One of the reasons is that there aren’t enough parents and teachers asking these kinds of questions,” says Scot Case of UL Environment, a company that independently certifies everything from cleaning products and paints to classroom furniture and toys based on their environmental characteristics.

There should be more people asking questions. The roster of noxious stuff used to manufacture classroom materials is enough to make a parent shudder. Many plastics contain hormone-disrupting chemicals called phthalates; solvents in markers and paint can trigger asthma attacks and cause headaches and nausea; and anything that kids can inhale, like clay dust and sand, can cause respiratory inflammation. These are not insignificant problems. Even if school supplies don’t cause them, anything that exacerbates these health issues could be harmful. As it is, asthma alone affects 1 in 10 American children and causes more school absences than any other chronic condition.

Pound for pound, children breathe more air, drink more water, and eat more food than adults. This means that poor indoor air and contaminated food and water (sometimes even from dust on the floor) can do far greater harm to children than adults. Kids’ biological systems, from their brains to their reproductive organs, are still growing.

Taken together, environmental contaminants can amount to a silent assault on kids’ bodies. Many public health experts increasingly believe that the collective damage caused by these exposures may underlie chronic health conditions for which no clear single cause exists: not only asthma and allergies, but also obesity, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and even, later in life, infertility. They don’t come from just one source, so why not eliminate the ones we can?

With that in mind, some groups like the nonprofit Healthy Schools Network are working to make classrooms safer and provide parents like me with at least a little more information on what to avoid when back-to-school shopping. (NRDC, which publishes OnEarth, offers The Green Squad, an online guide for kids who want to make their schools greener and healthier, as well as this back-to-school checklist.) Claire Barnett, a parent (and now grandparent) founded the Albany, New York-based Healthy Schools Network, which uses data from the EPA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and environment and health nonprofits to craft stronger policies for schools. (The organization does not take funding from chemical companies or school supply vendors, nor does it endorse any products.)

Since founding the network in 1995, Barnett has prioritized her own efforts based on how frequently particular items are used in schools. At the top of the list? The building materials and furniture, including wall paints and desks, and the cleaning products used every single day.

My toddler sometimes takes her make-believe tea parties too far, popping PlayDoh “cookies” in her mouth right before my eyes.

In addition to listing the types of products that school administrators should buy to furnish and maintain the schools, the group’s healthy purchasing guide, released this back-to-school season, includes a list of things teachers and parents ought to avoid. To name a few: anything made with vinyl, or PVC, which can include binders, pencil cases, lunchboxes, raincoats, backpacks, and other pliable plastic items. Vinyl contains those sex hormone-disrupting phthalates, which have been linked with lowered fertility later in life.

Other rules of thumb: avoid products that contain asthma-, nausea- and headache-inducing solvents (liquids that are used to dissolve substances and form solutions). In the classroom, solvents suspend pigments in dry erase markers, oil-based paints, spray paints, or the glue in rubber cement. (Instead, try a glue stick.) You’ll often detect an odor as you breathe in the evaporating solvents. Take a pass, too, on anything that kids could inhale, like spray paint, powdered paints, clay dust, or some types of sandbox sand. These items can cause respiratory inflammation.

And what about crayons, finger paints, and modeling clay? The stuff that kids who still occasionally eat school supplies frequently use? My best resource for detailed information turned out to be the Arts and Crafts Materials Institute (ACMI), a trade group that offers voluntary certification for non-toxic art products. This doesn’t mean those products are necessarily “green,” but it does mean that a group of Duke University toxicologists deemed every color of every formula non-toxic and safe for children to handle. Stockmar’s beeswax crayons were on the group’s list of products stamped “AP” for “approved product,” and so are some of Crayola’s traditional offerings.

Still, there are other environmental factors to consider: Crayola’s crayons are made using petrochemicals; Stockmar’s are beeswax. Certainly there’s a difference there. I turned to Deborah Moore of California’s Green Schools Initiative, a California-based group founded in 2004 by parents concerned with the lack of environmental health and sustainability policies in their children’s schools, who told me that (surprise!) there’s no clear answer.

DIY Play Dough with Natural Dyes

Recipe courtesy of Annie B. Bond, the best-selling author of award-winning green living books, including Better Basics for the Home. Visit her sites at greenchicafe.com and atruefind.com.

INGREDIENTS

2 cups flour
2/3 cup salt
1 tablespoon cream of tartar
1 tablespoon or more of vegetable oil

 

JUICES
Red: beets, cranberries, raspberries
Blue: blueberries
Yellow: ground turmeric
Green: asparagus, spinach
Brown: tea, coffee, boiled onion skins (drained and cooled)

 

DIRECTIONS
Place all the ingredients in a saucepan. Stir in the water, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly. Cook until it is difficult to stir and near playdough texture (approximately five minutes or so); cook slightly, add a tablespoon of vegetable oil or more to texture preference, and then knead until smooth. Dye with berry juice, beets, and other colorful fruit and vegetable juices such as from blueberries.

GoodGuide and the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep product- and ingredient-safety databases allow consumers to research sunscreens, personal care products, and other items, and find safer alternatives to products with so-so grades. ACMI, however, is more of a pass-fail system that doesn’t tell you what passing actually means. “It’s not a red, yellow, green rating system,” says Moore.

That left me to sift through the products on the ACMI site with the AP seal. Using whatever information I could glean, I came to a decision about what I wanted to see end up in my kid’s classroom. So what did I do? I scanned for brands that I knew to be environmentally responsible, like Stockmar, and started my selection process that way. Sometimes, as was the case with glue, I decided to go with an AP-stamped glue stick, thinking that at the very least kids would be less likely to get runny liquid glue all over their hands and possibly in their mouths.

Ultimately, I was able to cobble together a list of suggestions for my daughter’s teacher using third-party certification systems and consumer-focused resources such as the GoodGuide, GreenGuard, the ACMI, and a little DIY ingenuity. My biggest concern: my toddler sometimes takes her make-believe tea parties too far, popping PlayDoh “cookies” in her mouth right before my eyes. So I created some homemade play dough using edible supplies, coloring it with juice from beets, purple carrots, spinach, and other fruits and vegetables. (See the recipe to the left.)

At the end of the day, perhaps my greatest accomplishment was sharing my findings with the other parents in the class. With any luck, my concerns will resonate with them, too, and they’ll start asking questions and demanding safer school supplies in the future—whether their children eat the play dough or not.

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Brooklyn-based journalist Laura Wright Treadway is a contributing editor to OnEarth and a former senior editor at the magazine. With degrees in environmental science and geology, as well as stints at Scientific American and Discover, she's also our favorite science geek. MORE STORIES ➔
Comments (2)
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Thanks for the helpful article on your adventures in purchasing healthier, less-toxic school and art supplies. Please share the list you pulled together! The lists that Green Schools Initiative pulled together can be found at our Green Schools Buying Guide, which includes some resources for art supplies, school and office supplies, cleaners, papers, foodware, and more. http://www.greenschools.net/buyingguide . Our Guide helps people figure out what to look for, including certifications or labels, how do you know it's green, directories of products, and other information. What I meant by saying that things are not always clear is that not all products are third-party certified as "healthy" or "less toxic" using clear, independent, and verified standards. So, consumers are often left to make their own tradeoffs - less-toxic ingredients versus wasteful packaging or other considerations. Looking for certified products is one way to avoid "greenwashing." And when certified products aren't available, then the other suggestions you mention are useful, as well.
Thanks to OnEarth for a great article. And I echo Deborah Moore's comment -- there are some answers, but not yet as many as parents and schools need. Always start by looking for third party certified green products. Ask your school to cite them on classroom purchasing lists and ask the big box and local retailers to stock those supplies. Claire Barnett