While Congress has voted to ban toxic lead and phthalates from toys, the legislation does not cover children's backpacks, many of which are made of vinyl containing both toxic substances. Lead, high exposures of which cause learning problems (not so cool for back to school) and phthalates, linked to obesity and lower sperm counts, readily migrate out of vinyl and onto children's fingers, and thence into their mouths. Phthalates also evaporate into the air and get inhaled; studies have shown they contribute to asthma and other respiratory problems in children. 

When shopping for backpacks, make sure they're PVC-free at a minimum, and made of recycled materials to get an E (for eco and excellence) plus. Here are some recommendations:

Best for the earth and our health: Backpacks made from recycled PET bottles from REI; toss in a BPA-free water bottle. Patagonia, as usual, leads the pack with recycled nylon canvas and polyester linings in a variety of day and backpacks.

Not recycled, but affordable and PVC-free in bright child-friendly colors and designs, from Lands End.

PVC-free children's packs featuring endangered creatures like kiwi birds and polar bears, from CBH Studio. For the non-faint of heart, they also offer attractive, lightweight, recycled PVC laptop bags, which is great for the environment, but not to be used by children, in our book.

Hip, PVC- and Teflon-free kids' messenger bags from Fleurville.  

Preteens and high schoolers will dig the countercultural cachet, and pillow-softness, of all-natural Hemp daypacks from Green Earth Office Supply.

This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2008. The story was added to MNN.com in July 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

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Back to school tips