It's hard enough for kids to come back indoors after summer without having to breathe toxic, eye- and lung-irritating volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in classroom air. Not a great atmosphere for learning. Common culprits include petrochemical-based glues, magic markers and dry-erase pens, and conventional cleaning products.

For your child's school projects, look for water-based markers made by Crayola and others, widely sold in office supply, stationery and corner drug stores. In environmental studies class, your child can write the talk with a refillable pen made from certified sustainable and recycled materials: The Triggerwood Pen is made from recycled wood that originally came from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified well-managed forests, and ink cartridges made of 30 percent post-consumer-recycled brass. And don't forget greener pencils.

Rather than dry-erase boards, perhaps your child's school might consider traditional chalkboards and low-dust, asbestos-free chalk made from calcium carbonate (just remember to clean those erasers out of doors, and downwind). Or ask them to substitute "low-odor" dry erase markers, which are generally less toxic than standard ones, because they're based on alcohols rather than problematic methyl isobutyl ketone and butyl acetate, advises the Washington Toxics Coalition (WTA). If your school is well-meaning but low on resources, band together with other parents in your child's class to purchase a set of AusPen Dry Erase Markers, which are 100 percent recyclable, refillable and nontoxic, and made from recycled materials. Pricey, at about $70/set of six, but well worth the investment.

Petroleum-free, soy-based crayons can be had from Green Earth Office Supply or Prang. WTA says to avoid aromatic, vaporous glues such as rubber cement, and Krazy Glue, Super Glue and other brands that use cyanoacrylate, an eye and respiratory system irritant. Again, go for water-based glues and glue sticks.

How about an all-in-one eco-friendly and healthy school supply kit? We give top green grades to these reasonably priced ($17-$30) back-to-school batches, tailored to K-2nd, 3rd-5th and 6th-8th grade needs. There's one for teacher, too.


Enough of asthma-inducing fumes at school! For nontoxic institutional cleaning supplies, ask your child's school to look at Deirdre Imus's pure and powerful Greening the Cleaning products. For a list of more green cleaners for home and school, and tips for working with your child's school to achieve a healthier learning environment, click here.

This article originally appeared in Plenty in September 2008. The story was added to in August 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

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Back to school tips