Nearly all of the supplies tested contained dangerous levels of phthalates, which are chemicals used to soften plastic. Phthalates are already illegal in toys and other children's products such as baby bottles, and for good reason. Even at low levels, phthalates disrupt hormones in our bodies. They contribute to problems such as obesity, asthma, allergies, early puberty, birth defects, ADHD, diabetes, and cancer.
Even more alarming are the levels of pthalates present in the school supplies that were tested. For example, four children's backpacks among the school supplies. One of these backpacks, a Dora the Explorer one, contained over 69,000 parts per million (ppm) of a pthalate that is known to be dangerous. That's over 69 times the level legally allowed in toys. It's worth noting that every single backpack tested contained many times the amounts of phthalates considered illegal
What makes this such a problem is that children are much more easily affected by hazardous chemicals than adults. Their bodies are still developing, so being exposed to toxics like pthalates can have far-reaching consequences. In addition, children are much more likely to put objects containing dangerous chemicals into their mouths. The saddest part is that many children have been harmed by pthalates since before they were born. These chemicals have been linked to birth defects in male reproductive systems, and early puberty in girls (which increases the risk of breast cancer).
What can be done about this? First of all, parents would do well to avoid buying vinyl school supplies. Since phthalates are used to soften plastic, they're often found in vinyl products. A list of phthalate-free school supplies can be found at the Center for Health, Environment and Justice's website. You can also contact your representatives in Congress and let them know that you support the Safe Chemicals Act (S. 847). This bill would dramatically reduce the amount of toxic found in everyday products, such as school supplies.
For more information about this problem, and what you can do about it, read the original study at http://chej.org/2012/08/backtoschool2012/.