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Healthier Back-to-School Shopping


As parents across the country send their kids back to school, the isles of big-box stores become crowded with shoppers picking up everything from file folders to snacks. In addition to price, considering which products are healthiest for our children is also critical in the long run. Thankfully, there are plenty of greener, affordable choices at major retailers, local shops and online that are better for kids’ health and the planet.

When packing your child’s lunch, opt for a re-usable lunch box or cloth bag instead of single-use bags. Some vinyl lunch boxes may contain lead, so check it with a home lead test kit, (available at hardware stores and home centers) if it’s not labeled “lead safe.” Note that “lead safe” does not necessarily mean lead-free. Lunch bags and backpacks made with vinyl can also contain hormone-disrupting chemicals called phthalates, so avoiding vinyl altogether is a healthy bet. Avoid clear or tinted hard-plastic water bottles made from #7 plastic, which usually contains the hormone-disruptor bisphenol-A, or BPA. Even items labeled “BPA-free” may still contain a BPA substitute chemical which is just as harmful. Stainless-steel or glass bottles (with a silicone sleeve to reduce chance of breakage) are healthier options. For a guide to sippy cups and water bottles, click here. A bamboo or stainless steel cutlery set can save money in the long run and eliminate disposables.

When food shopping for lunch food, avoid over-packaged pre-made options and choose fresh, such as sandwiches made with whole grain bread, hummus and veggies, or more traditional options from the deli counter, where hormone and antibiotic-free, or organic meat and cheese options are available in most supermarkets. Ask if you don’t find what you’re looking for, as these may be in a different section than conventional varieties. Fresh produce such as apples, raisins, bananas, mini-carrots and grapes are also easy and quick to pack on busy mornings. Organic yogurts in non-dairy or dairy versions are yummy dessert options.  Keep in mind that organic foods have been shown to reduce exposures to several harmful pesticides as shown in this 2015 study.

While shopping for school supplies, look for re-usable items such as refillable pens and backpacks made from recycled materials that will last more than one marking period. For paper, cut down on what you need to buy by setting your printer at home, school and work to print on both sides. Look for recycled-content and chlorine-free symbols on paper products, and aim for the highest recycled-content available. Plastic items such as rulers may be available in recycled versions, too. Remember to buy products with little or no packaging to reduce waste, and avoid scissors, pencils and other supplies marked “Microban,” “antibacterial” or “antimicrobial” as they may contain Triclosan and other chemicals of concern. If computer equipment is on your list, see the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), which rates electronics according to environmental criteria. Choosing a product without lead, mercury, cadmium or certain flame retardants is better for human health in reducing immediate and long-term exposures to these toxins. Many of these options are available online and at big-box stores, as well as community shops which support local business. Opting for greener school products helps teach kids how to contribute to a healthier earth, both in and out of the classroom.

Article By Erin S. Ihde, MA, CCRP: 
Erin S. Ihde, MA, CCRP is Project Manager of Environmental Research at The Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center®.  She specializes in environmental health research and education, particularly eliminating exposures to everyday toxins among children and populations with health disparities.  She has formed research collaborations with institutions around the country on topics including environmental factors associated with autism spectrum disorders, a pediatric school-based clinical trial, measuring exposures to toxins linked to cancer and endocrine disruption among children, mothers and newborns, and a breast cancer prevention study.  Erin has an MA in Environmental Education from New York University, where she received a fellowship from the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, a BA in English from the Honors Program at The College of New Jersey, and is a Certified Clinical Research Professional through SoCRA.


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