September 6, 2007

Advice to Parents prepared by the Canadian Environmental Law Association

Toronto: Back-to-school shopping is one of the biggest retail events of the year. After a summer of recalls that pulled millions of toys off the market or out of children’s hands, consumers should be wary. In the absence of adequate laws to ensure product safety, all those brightly coloured, and even perfumed plastics, vinyls, pencils and markers can add to your child’s chemical exposure.

We need better product safety and product labeling laws. In the meantime, back-to-school shopping can still be fun. Here are some tips for making better choices.


Avoid soft, brightly-coloured vinyl backpacks made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). The interior label will tell you the product contents and where it was manufactured. Production and disposal of PVC is linked to cancer and reproductive disorders. The soft vinyl texture is created by adding phthalates, chemicals linked with a range of child development health concerns. The bright colours can also contain lead or other heavy metals. Lead is toxic to children’s developing brains. Because of these chemical or metal additives, PVC plastic is also next to impossible to recycle.

Choose backpacks made from polyester or nylon.


Vinyl also shows up in many soft insulated lunch boxes for kids. Two years ago, independent tests of vinyl lunch boxes found that a number of them contained high levels of lead. As a result, many manufacturers now have their products tested. If your child must have a vinyl lunchbox, watch for those labeled "lead-safe" or "lead-free." However, remember that these are simply manufacturer’s claims. These products are not independently monitored.

The best approach: Avoid vinyl all together.  Try metal lunch boxes. Or, look for alternative lunch totes and bags made of cloth. For lunch boxes and totes that include plastic containers, use the recycling symbol to make better choices among different plastics (as discussed next).

Water Bottles and Food Containers

Parents and even teachers often encourage children to take a water bottle to school. Since tap water can generally be trusted, you don't need to buy water in single-use plastic bottles. Invest in a reusable water bottle and wash it regularly. 

Unfortunately, many attractive, colored, reusable water bottles are made of polycarbonate plastic. This plastic is identifiable by the #7 recycling symbol on the bottom. It will also often have the letters “PC” below the recycling symbol. Polycarbonate plastic contains Bisphenol A, a chemical that may be linked to two common cancers (breast and prostate cancer) and to developmental impacts in children. Bisphenol A leaches into the water, a process that increases with hot water washing, age, and wear and tear on the container. Why take the risk? There are better alternatives.

Choose from reusable water bottles made of stainless steel or glass that can be carried in a quilted carrying case. Do the same for food storage, especially hot food.

If you must use plastic, using the numbered recycling symbols can guide better choices. Choose numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5 and avoid 3, 6 and 7. Number 3 should be especially avoided as it is the symbol for PVC plastics. It should never be used for food or water storage.

Containers made from numbers 1 and 2 plastic are generally store-bought foods. Among the reusable plastics for food storage, choose containers made from numbers 4 and 5 and avoid number 7.

One exception to this advice is the use of number 7 on the bio-based plastics made from corn or soy. These plastics are generally clear and found in some store-bought items. They may also have the letters “PLA” under the number 7, as distinct from the letters “PC” under the polycarbonate #7 plastic. The bio-based plastics are compostable and a better choice if you cannot avoid plastic. Also, if the number 7 is accompanied by word “other,” it is probably polycarbonate plastic and should be avoided.

Post-script (April, 2008). See FAQ in Bisphenol A Collection: The #7 symbol is confusing. How can I tell which containers labelled #7 contain Bisphenol A. What about hard plastic containers with no number on them at all?

Pencils, Pens, Highlighters, Crayons

It can be a difficult habit to break but be vigilant in reminding children to not chew on pens and pencils. If possible, choose paint-free pencils. In the past, paint on pencils from China has contained lead. During the 1990s, crayons from China also contained lead.

In the absence of good regulation of international trade, it is worthwhile choosing made-in-Canada pencils, pencil crayons and crayons. If unavailable, choose those made in the US or countries in the European Union. While not a guarantee of being lead-free, these countries have better regulation of the use of lead than exists in China for example. You can also look for crayons made from beeswax or organic products. 

Highlighter and markers with sweet smells will prompt your kids to sniff them constantly. As with many other scented products, phthalates are often used to make perfumes stronger and last longer. Look for scent-free markers to avoid adding to your child's exposure to phthalates.

Demand Better Regulation of Products

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act is under review by the federal Parliament. This law regulates toxic chemicals but does a very poor job of regulating their use, import, sale and labelling in consumer products. Write to Tony Clement, Minister of Health and John Baird, Minister of Environment. Together, their departments administer the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. Tell them to amend it to regulate toxic substances in consumer products.

Contact information for all federal MPs is available on-line at:

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For more information:

Kathleen Cooper, Senior Researcher, CELA
416-960-2284 ext. 221 or 705-341-2488 (cell)
and visit