Tips for a Healthy Back-to-School Season (August 2009)

CEH Wishes You a Safe and Healthy Back-to-School Season

At the Center for Environmental Health, we’ve spent the summer working
with legislators, allies, communities, and businesses – all to protect families
like yours from toxic chemicals.  A few
quick highlights:

  • We wrote and are now supporting a bill that will ban the largest source of new lead in the environment:  lead weights on automobile wheels.
  • We continue working to force the Port of Oakland to address the health impacts of its operations on local workers and residents.
  • We exposed rampant lead contamination in wallets and handbags.
  • In partnership with the California Attorney General, we negotiated a settlement with Astroturf, forcing the company to eliminate lead poisoning dangers from its artificial turf.
  • We’re pushing legislators to pass a law banning bisphenol-A (a carcinogen and reproductive toxin) from baby bottles and food containers.
  • We’re helping the California Attorney General police the sale of lead-tainted candies and soda bottles sold in Latino neighborhoods.

While pushing for these far-reaching environmental health victories, we’ve also been monitoring store shelves, school cafeterias, and more – all to equip you to protect your family from hidden environmental health threats during this back-to-school season.

Read on for CEH’s healthy back-to-school tips.

Caroline’s Corner

Cox is the nationally renowned environmental health scientist who leads CEH’s research on toxic exposures.  For this edition of the Corner, we asked
Caroline to share a few tips to help people avoid some of the toxic chemicals that accompany the back-to-school season.

ccphotoHere’s what Caroline had to say:

In past years, we couldn’t walk through stores that sold back-to-school supplies without tripping over lead-tainted backpacks, lunchboxes, and other school essentials made for kids.  But this year, we’ve found far fewer lead threats on the shelves.  In fact, we tested over 150 different backpacks, lunchboxes, and other back-to-school items from Wal-Mart, Target, and other big-box stores, and we learned that most items were lead-free.  This is great news for families, and it shows that CEH has had a solid impact on the marketplace.  Still, we did find a few items to watch out for:

  • We found high lead levels in one backpack, an “Everest” brand pack from Walgreens, and certain pencil pouches from Staples, Office Depot, Office Max, CVS (Longs), and K-Mart.
  • While some big-name retail chains may have removed many lead-contaminated products, discount stores and dollar stores have more products with lead problems.  Our recent tests found high lead levels in lunch bags, toys, a backpack, and other back-to-school products purchased from discount stores.
  • Manschooly back-to-school products, including art supplies, notebooks, organizers and address books, electronics and others are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC).  In some circles, vinyl is known as the “poison plastic” because of the many harmful health impacts that accompany its production, use and disposal.  A helpful resource from the Center for Health, Environment & Justice is the Back-to-School Guide to PVC-Free School Supplies.  The guide lists over 20 categories of school supplies made without PVC, helping parents make healthy shopping choices that are safer for children, communities, and the environment.

Because lead can cause serious health problems, including permanent brain damage, we also recommend a
better-safe-than-sorry approach.  When in
doubt, test
your children’s products.  A home
lead test kit (lead swab) is a good, cheap way to start.  If you can make it to our office in Oakland, you’re also
welcome to bring items in, and we’ll test them for you (free of charge).  For help and information, contact today.


School Lunch Gets a Makeover

meat and tuna surprise are so last year. And thank goodness, because
the semi-edible products served at schools are among the emptiest, most
heavily processed, pesticide drenched, genetically engineered, and
least sustainable calories ever to masquerade as food.

Chef Ann Cooper, the renegade lunch lady, is transforming the way
schools, parents and kids think about school lunch.  Her National
School Food Challenge
calls on parents and schools to provide fresh, local,
healthy food.  It offers fun, hands-on tools,
like a Healthy Kid Meal Wheel and a Nutrition Report Card, to help kids,
parents, and schools make healthier food choices.

But is it working?  Well, Chef Ann’s
project recently overhauled the city of Berkeley’s
public school food program and is now doing the same for the city of Boulder, Colorado.

out the “The Lunchbox” for tools your
child’s school can use to promote healthier eating.


Watch out:  Lead Snakes in the Grass

Even playing on the school lawn or field can be risky. Last year, CEH found high levels of lead in several dozen varieties of
artificial turf and indoor/outdoor artificial grass.  These are the bright green grass carpets used
in playgrounds, schools, parks, and for residential lawns and gardens.  CEH’s tests have shown that the lead in
artificial turf easily transfers from the grass blades onto clothing, skin,
hands, and mouths.  This means that
contaminated artificial turf can expose children who play on it to dangerous
levels of lead.

In August, one of the nation’s leafing turf makers, AstroTurf, became
the first company to agree to legally binding rules toget the lead out of their turf.

Other companies, including industry-leader Field Turf, are in ongoing
negotiations to address the lead problems raised by lawsuits from CEH and the California Attorney General.

how can you find out if there is lead in a turf field your child plays on at
home, in school, or at the park?  You’ve
heard it before, but it bears repeating:
when in doubt, test it.  It’s the
most important advice we give to parents about children’s items that they
believe might be contaminated with lead.

In the case of turf, you can start with the school, park, etc. and ask
if they’ve had it tested.  If so, what
were the results?  If not, CEH is glad to
test any samples sent our way.  For help
and information, contact today.

lead levels are high, and the health threat is serious.  If your child
comes in contact with turf, please don’t fail to act.


Protect People and the Environment When You Buy Your Back-to-School

Here’s the truth that the electronics industry wants you to ignore:  We rely on electronic gadgets (like school
computers) that contain some of the most toxic materials known to science.  We use these devices sometimes for as little
as a year, we discard them, and replace them with new devices equally

Our consumption of electronics has created some of the most toxic sites
on the planet.  If you haven’t already heard
about this problem, we recommend these unforgettable features from 60
and Frontline.

Bottom line:  we need electronics
that are designed, manufactured, and refurbished in a way that protects people
from the toxic materials lurking just beneath our gadgets’ shiny exteriors.

When large manufacturers get the message that consumers care about the
way electronic products are made, used, and recycled, they make changes that
protect people and the environment.  CEH
is building incentives for manufacturers to do just that.

As you consider purchasing new computer and other electronics in the
back-to-school season, here are a few ways you can take part in this important

  • Consider purchasing refurbished computers.  These products save you money and some refurbishers offer better warranties than you’ll find on new products.  Reused equipment reduces toxic chemicals, energy use, resources, and electronic waste.
  • Adding memory to a computer is cheap and easy, and it can give you the performance of the latest machines.  Google the model of your machine along with “upgrade memory.”
  • Check the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) website to identify computers, laptops and monitors that meet this eco-label for electronics (  While most of the computers listed are business models, there are some consumer models available.
  • Make sure your electronic equipment is Energy Star compliant.
  • Choose laptop computers, which can use 80% to 90% less energy than desktops.
  • Greenpeace rated several products that were submitted by several manufacturers as their company’s “greenest” product. For the full report click here.
  • Although they did not submit any products to Greenpeace for rating, Apple has registered many EPEAT products and has begun to reduce its use of hazardous materials such as PVC and brominated flame retardants.
  • Whichever product you purchase, be sure to use the power management settings on your computer.  They can save you money and reduce energy consumption and CO2 emissions which contribute to global warming.
  • When you purchase an electronic product, submit a comment with your order, letting the company know that you would like to see more EPEAT consumer products.


Help Us Fight for You!

Right now the chemical industry is hiring the same lobbyists
who’ve waged irresponsible and dangerous disinformation campaigns on
behalf of big tobacco.  Their goal:  use the same tactics to convince
the government not to ban a proven-dangerous chemical called
bisphenol-a from plastic baby bottles.

This effort and dozens like it continue without conscience.

In response, CEH relies on the support of the growing community
of people who believe toxic chemicals have no place in our lives.
If you count yourself a member of this community and would like to make
a statement in favor of sound public policy, uncompromised science, and
people’s health, please consider making a donation.  You can click
for access to our quick, secure, and easy on-line donation service.