08/27/2012 01:29 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2012

Scary Stuff in School Supplies

Like we need another thing to worry about, but this is so important: A recent study from the Center for Health, Environment & Justice found harmful levels of phthalates in 20 popular back-to-school products including backpacks, lunchboxes, binders and rain gear.

Why should we worry about phthalates? Typically used to soften plastics like PVC (also known as vinyl), even low levels of phthalates have been linked to birth defects, obesity and asthma.

In 2008, Congress permanently banned three types of phthalates -- DEHP, DMP and DBP, all of which were found in the school supplies -- in any amount greater than .1 percent in children's toys, teethers and feeding products.

Sadly, the levels found in these back-to-school products are so high, they would be illegal if the products were toys. The phthalate levels found in 75% of the school supplies tested were greater than .1 percent -- by far. For example, the Disney Princess Lunchbox contained 29,800 ppm of DEHP -- more than 29 times the limit set by the federal ban.

Often referred to as the "poison plastic," PVC causes environmental damage both through its production and disposal, according to the non-profit Californians Against Waste. It contains lead and cadmium, which are known to cause health issues and leaches dioxin, a known carcinogen, into the environment. PVC was recently linked to diabetes, a condition that now affects 25 million Americans.

And because it's non-recyclable yet virtually indistinguishable from other, non-toxic plastics such as PET, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that 32 percent of the waste in landfills is made up of PVC containers and discarded packaging.

Plus, if you screw up and toss it in the blue bin, just one PVC bottle can render a batch of 1,000 PET bottles unsuitable for high-end recycling use, costing recyclers thousands of dollars and insurmountable damage to the planet.

Need more reasons to stay away from PVC when you're shopping for school supplies? Check out the Back-to-School Guide to PVC-Free School Supplies -- featuring more than 40 product categories of safer gear such as backpacks, lunchboxes, binders, art supplies, electronics, and more--and make sure that when you pack your child's lunch this fall, you don't include a side of phthalates.

Then, send a message to Congress that we must pass the Safe Chemicals Act this year. This new report underscores the need for Congress to get dangerous chemicals like phthalates out of our homes, schools and communities -- once and for all.