As the long hot days of summer morph in to the shorter crisp days of fall, it is hard for most parents not to be caught up in a flurry of back-to-school preparations. Lunch supplies are an absolute back-to-school essential. The bad news? Not all lunch boxes and food containers are as safe as you would hope. Many lunch supplies come filled with toxins like phthalates, PVC and lead. The good news: there is no shortage of non-toxic lunch supplies and they are easy to find. Here are my tips for lunch chemicals to avoid and guidelines to follow when packing up those lunch boxes for your kiddos. You can watch my green lunch supplies segment for More Good Day Oregon here and read below for more detailed information.
Chemicals to Avoid
This group of chemicals is used to make plastics and vinyl soft and pliable and are widely used a a range of products, from flooring to nail polish to lunch boxes. However, phthalates can interfere with our hormones (know as endocrine disrupters) and have been linked to several health concerns including childhood asthma, reproductive health and damage to vital organs such as the liver and kidneys. There are restrictions or bans on the use of phthalates in the European Union, Japan, Iceland, Mexico and Norway. In 2008 phthalates were banned in children’s toys in the U.S. However, this 2008 ban does NOT extend to school supplies, i.e. backpacks, raincoats, and lunchboxes. A 2012 study by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice has detected phthalates in numerous school supplies including lunch boxes, often at levels that would “…violate the federal ban if the product were a children’s toy.”
Part of what makes phthalates so worrisome is the simple fact that they can travel out of products, potentially causing repeated exposures to those using the product (think about the number of times in a school day that a child touches their backpack or lunchbox!).
Vinyl chloride, the chemical used to make PVC, is a known human carcinogen, according to the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). In addition, PVC often contains lead, which, like phthalates can travel out of products and onto your child's skin and mouth. Lead and other heavy metals are sometimes used as a stabilizer or to impart other properties to PVC plastic, and phthalates are used as plasticizers to soften the vinyl material. This means that in many cases PVC contains numerous toxic substances. Quick Tip: Avoid products labeled with the word "PVC" or the #3. If the item has either of these in the label it contains vinyl.
Some good news about lead: the Consumer Product Safety Information Act (CPSI) mandated that as of August 14, 2009, products designed or intended primarily for children aged 12 and younger cannot contain more than 300 ppm of lead. As of August 14, 2011 that limit went down to 100ppm. While this standard does not apply to products intended for those over the age of 12 it is at least a step in the right direction.
Green It Up!
We are lucky that many companies now are focusing on producing products that are toxin free and safe for our children. Here are a few tips on choosing products that are safe and a few of my particular favorites.
Lunch Boxes and Containers
Stainless steel is your friend! Unlike plastic and PVC stainless steel will not leach chemicals into food or on to your child's skin. Stainless steel lunch boxes and lunch containers make an excellent alternative to those made with plastic and PVC. There is a wide range of stainless steel lunch products, from bento boxes to single containers to straws. If your child is in preschool like mine and you provide the cup and plate choose stainless steel over plastic, the cost is comparable and the piece of mind is priceless.
My favorite stainless steel lunch container so far is the Planet Box Rover. It is easy to use, and in addition to meeting the normal safety standards, Planet Box puts their products through independent testing to ensure safety. Their fabrics are also made of recycled plastic bottles, which earn them double green points in my book!
Cloth is another safe and reusable option. There is no shortage to the number of cloth lunch bag options. Eco Lunchbox makes a range of products from stainless steel bento boxes to individual serving containers and cloth lunch bags and everything they make is plastic and toxin-free. (Side note: The lunch study page on the Eco Lunchbox website breaks down the cost savings of using reusable containers and makes a pretty strong case.)
We have the basic insulated lunch bag by Bumkins, and I've been happy with it. It has enough room for a good-sized lunch, keeps things cold (I always put a cold pack inside) and best of all it is free of BPA, phthalates, lead and vinyl. If you want to get fancy you could try an organic cotton lunch bag or something from ETSY but as long as you aren't using a paper bag or something loaded with chemicals you should be good to go.
Reusable Snack Bags
These are very handy, and I use them for everything from leftovers, to storage, to packing up lunches. The materials can vary and some close with zippers and some with velcro. I have yet to find a reusable snack bag that holds liquids but slightly juicy items stay contained so you could definitely use one of these for fruit or a sandwich with pickles and tomato, etc. When choosing your snack bag, make sure that the fabric is free of BPA, phthalates, vinyl and lead. A good company should tell you that information in the product details. If you have to hunt to figure this out, chances are there is something nasty in the bag.
I use snack bags by Smitten. I like them because they come in a variety of sizes and the company is stringent and vigilant about testing their products for toxins. All Smitten fabrics are free of BPA, latex, phthalates, vinyl, lead and other heavy metals, formaldehyde and brominated flame-retardants. My only complaint with these is that they hold up best if air-dried and that can take a while which is a pain.
Lunchskins is another company that makes non-toxic reusable snack bags. I've never tried these but plan to the next time I need to make a snack bag purchase, they get positive reviews and seem to wash up easily. I see these everywhere and they come in a fun variety of patterns and colors.
Additional Resources: Washington Toxins Coalition, Safe Start for Kids, Choosing Safer Products
*Disclaimer: I was given a Planet Box Rover and Bottle Rocket to review as part of my More Good Day Oregon segment but my ideas and opinions are my own.