By Denise Patel

Denise Patel holds a Master in Public Health from Columbia University. She is a consultant with the New Jersey Work Environment Council, which is a frequent partner with NJEA on school health and safety issues.

Glues and markers can be respiratory irritants. Lunchboxes and water bottles can leach chemicals. Even hand sanitizers that prevent germs today can pose problems for health tomorrow. Fortunately, many of these hazards are preventable and local associations can play a critical role to create healthier classrooms. School administrators, teachers, educational support professionals and parents can prevent those hazards when stocking school supplies and backpacks.

Crayons and markers

Crayons, such as discount brand crayons sold in dollar stores, may contain tremolite fibers, a respiratory irritant. Tremolites are a type of asbestos, a known carcinogen, and fibers can become airborne or leave residue on the skin and be accidentally ingested or inhaled. Though the amounts found in recent tests are small, it is best to avoid exposure to any type of asbestos, and purchase asbestos-free crayons.


School administrators, teachers, educational support professionals and parents can prevent hazards when stocking school supplies and backpacks.


Dry erase markers can contain a mix of chemicals known as BTEX compounds (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene). BTEX chemicals are known endocrine disruptors that can affect sexual reproduction, liver and kidney function, and immune system functioning. Benzene is considered to be a carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Scented crayons and markers that are labeled as nontoxic might still be toxic. Fragrance chemicals are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which means they can vaporize into the air. Exposure to fragrance chemicals can cause headaches; eye, nose, and throat irritation; nausea; forgetfulness; loss of coordination; and other respiratory and/or neurotoxic symptoms or trigger asthma attacks and aggravate sinus conditions.

Scented markers and crayons contain chemical fragrances that are not required by any federal agency to be tested for toxicity. Labels and safety data sheets provide very little, if any, additional information because companies can simply list “fragrance” as an ingredient without disclosing the chemicals in its ingredients.

Avoid these toxins by purchasing fragrance-free markers and crayons for classrooms.

Glues and adhesives

Extra-strong or instant adhesives such as epoxies, model, and “super” glues and rubber cement contain toxic solvents and chemicals. Epoxies may contain a range of chemicals depending on the manufacturer. Styrene, methyl methacrylate, epoxy resins, vinyl chloride and bisphenol-F are common ingredients that can cause eye and skin irritation from exposure to these chemicals. Rubber cement may contain chemicals such as n-hexane, acetone, heptane, isopropyl alcohol, paradichlorobenzene, and trichloroethane. These chemicals can cause short-term irritation to the respiratory system, eyes, and skin, nausea, and low blood pressure, and organ damage from long-term or repeated exposure.

Water-based glues, glue sticks, and “school” glue are safer alternatives. If it is necessary to use stronger adhesives, as might be the case in art and carpentry rooms, minimize exposure with proper ventilation and personal protective equipment, including safety goggles and appropriate gloves.

Hand sanitizers

Schools are their very own microcosm of viruses and bacteria. Hand sanitizers and antibacterial soaps might be a quick way to kill them; however, excess use of these products means only the strongest and most harmful bacteria and viruses survive. In addition, many hand sanitizers contain “fragrance” as an ingredient, similar to scented markers and crayons.

Harmful chemicals in antibacterial liquid hand soaps can be ingested or absorbed through the skin. Chemicals commonly found in anti-bacterial soaps include triclosan and triclocarban, which may mimic human hormones and disrupt reproductive and developmental health. Although the FDA has banned triclosan and 18 other chemicals used in anti-bacterial products in 2016, some companies have begun to replace them with chemicals that have not yet been tested for toxicity or potential human health impacts.

The best solution to avoid spreading germs is regular and thorough hand washing with normal soap and water.

Backpacks, lunch boxes and binders

In 2008, Congress passed a law to ban phthalates from toys and children’s products, but did not include school supplies. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or vinyl, found in backpacks, lunch boxes and binders, contains chemical additives such as phthalates, lead, cadmium, and organotins. Backpacks that contain PVC can shed fibers into the air from regular wear and tear, which can then be inhaled or ingested. Chemicals in plastic lunch boxes, water bottles and thermoses can leach into food and drinks.

Phthalates interfere in children’s health and development. Prenatal exposure in boys can cause birth defects and testicular cancer and liver problems later in life. In girls, phthalates can cause early onset of puberty and breast cancer later in life.

Lead is a known developmental and neurotoxin shown to increase attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and lower IQ in children from direct and prenatal exposure. In adults, lead can cause anemia, reduced kidney function and immune system impairment.

High-level cadmium exposure can lead to kidney and lung damage and may have more significant impact on children than adults. Cadmium, phthalates, and lead can also transfer from mother to child via breast milk. Limited information is available about organotins, but it can cause skin and eye irritation.

Check labels on products to avoid PVC. Some products may be labeled as PVC-free or can be identified as PVC by looking for #3 plastics. Stainless steel water bottles and lunch containers make good alternatives and are dishwasher safe. Vinyl-lined binders can be replaced with binders made from durable cardboard covers and other alternatives.


Local association action plan

• Make a safe school supplies list for parents, school staff and the school district.

– Check the labels.

– Provide Safety Data Sheets for all school staff members.

– Research products and safer alternatives.

• Ensure that the school district approves the purchase of the least toxic products and avoids vinyl or #3 plastic products.

• When hazardous materials, such as resins and glues, cannot be avoided, make a health and safety plan that minimizes exposure and provides appropriate ventilation and personal protective equipment.


For more information:

PVC-free School Supplies

Safer School Supplies: Shopping Guide

“Safer Materials for Art Classes,” NJEA Review, September 2017

“Negotiate for Modern Cleaning Equipment,” NJEA Review, October 2017

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