» Phthalates in school supplies
Phthalates in school supplies
Context - Phthalates are additives that are widely used in plastics to make them soft and flexible.
To protect children from potential health effects, certain phthalates are no longer used in toys and childcare articles. However, some school supplies – such as erasers, bags or pencil cases – were found to contain these phthalates.
Can regularly chewing on such articles cause harmful health effects?
An assessment by the European Commission Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks (SCHER)
1. Introduction: why is there a concern over phthalates in school supplies?
The Danish EPA found a variety of phthalates in school supplies.
Source: scol22, sxc.hu
Phthalates are a group of
chemical compounds used in the
production of plastics such as PVC
to make them softer and more flexible. When present in consumer
products, phthalates can be released because they are not chemically
bound to the plastics. This may lead to human exposure, which has raised
public concern. Many different phthalates exist with different
properties, uses, and health effects.
Because of their potential effects on human health, the European Union
has banned the use of six specific
phthalates in products for
children. Notably, DEHP,
BBP have been
banned in all toys and childcare articles,
DNOP have been banned only in
those articles that children could suck and chew on.
In a recent study, the Danish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
found a variety of phthalates in
school supplies – including in erasers – and concluded that, in general,
the tested supplies do not pose any health risks when used
However, the Danish study warned that some of the tested erasers which
contained DEHP may present health
risks, when children regularly suck and chew on them.
Also, some manufacturers might now use other types of
phthalates which have not been
banned in consumer products.
2. How was the Danish study on phthalates in school supplies conducted?
A number of items, including erasers, were analysed for chemical
Source: Allen Pope
In the framework of the study carried out by the Danish Environmental
Protection Agency (Danish EPA), a number of school bags, toy bags,
pencil cases, and erasers available in shops were analysed to see the
type and the amount of chemical substances they contained and how much
would be released if children bit or licked them.
The school supplies items considered most relevant were erasers due to
their small size that makes them likely candidates for repeated chewing.
Of the 26 erasers analysed in detail, three contained
DEHP and six
DINP. Some of the other school
supplies also contained some DIBP
or DBP. In general, the tested
school supplies were considered not to present a health risk for
children, except erasers containing DEHP.
The European Commission Scientific Committee on Health and
Environmental Risks (SCHER) agreed
with the Danish EPA that, among all school supplies tested, the only
ones that may be of concern are erasers as children could repeatedly
suck or chew on them.
However, the SCHER considers
that a proper risk assessment of
the potential exposure to
phthalates from erasers cannot be
made based on the Danish study because of the various shortcomings in
the way it was designed and conclusions were drawn. Indeed, measurements
of how much phthalate passes into artificial saliva were made only on
one eraser and in ways that probably resulted in great overestimates of
the true values. Moreover, the method used had other weaknesses and the
results are very uncertain.
3. To what extent can children be exposed to phthalates through erasers?
Exposure of children to phthalates from erasers is from chewing or
The exposure of children to DEHP
and DINP from erasers by licking
and chewing depends on how long they keep the eraser in their mouths,
how many small bits of eraser they swallow, how much of the
phthalates passes into saliva or
into gastric juice, and how the substance is taken up by the body
The study from the Danish EPA gives estimates of how much passes into
saliva if a child puts an eraser in its mouth during an hour per day, a
situation that is considered reasonable worst-case scenarios by the
European Commission Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental
Risks (SCHER). It is assumed that
all the phthalates in saliva or
gastric juice passes into the body through digestion. The hardest factor
to estimate is how much of the eraser is swallowed after chewing bits
off it; and this is the largest source of uncertainty in the
With these assumptions, the combined worst-case scenarios result in
exposures four times higher than the tolerable daily intake
DEHP. However, licking on erasers
and swallowing bits of them is a short-lived habit and children are
unlikely to swallow large amounts of eraser in this way. The exposure
time is short and phthalates are
rapidly transformed and eliminated from the body. Therefore, comparing
such worst-case short-term exposures with the TDI, which is meant for
regular, lifetime exposures, is not really appropriate here.
4. To what extent are people exposed to phthalates?
The diet, particularly fatty food, is responsible for most of the
DEHP exposure in adults.
Source: Steve Woods
The EU-Risk Assessment Reports
(RAR) on various phthalates
estimated the likely exposure from food, materials and the environment.
Although little is known about how
DEHP and other
phthalates are taken in,
transformed and eliminated by the body and how exposure varies for
different age groups, the average exposure of children is known to be
approximately twice that of adults. Different lifestyle factors, eating
behaviours, and the ingestion of dust from indoor surfaces by children
may play a role. The diet, particularly fatty food, is responsible for
most of the DEHP exposure in adults while it only accounts for half of
the DEHP that children take in, which suggests that, for children, other
important sources exist.
While DEHP was the phthalate most
commonly used in consumer products in the 1990s, since then it has been
increasingly replaced by DIDP
because of health concerns. The change in use has been reflected in a
change in exposure to these two
phthalates. The levels of exposures
of the general population to DEHP – estimated based on urine samples –
are on average well below the tolerable daily intake
(TDI). However, some groups of the
population, notably people exposed through medical procedures such as
kidney dialysis, might be exposed
to considerably higher levels which approach or even exceed the TDI.
In the case of the other
phthalates assessed by the EU
Risk Assessment reports,
calculated exposures are below the tolerable level except for
DBP. A significant portion of the
population may be exposed to doses of DBP above the
TDI and efforts to further reduce
exposures are needed.
Overview of the main phthalates and their applications
5. What daily exposure levels to phthalates are considered safe?
Current understanding about the effects of exposure to a specific
phthalate on human health is mainly based on findings from animal
Above certain exposure levels the different
phthalates can cause harmful
effects in animals. For a given phthalate, the harmful effects that
occur at the lowest levels of exposure are referred to as critical
These critical toxic effects
include effects on reproduction
DIBP), on development (BBP, DBP,
DIBP), on the liver (DINP,
DNOP), and on the
Based on available experimental findings a tolerable daily intake
(TDI) has been established for humans
for the different phthalates,
except for DNOP and
DIBP. The TDI is an estimate of
the amount that can be taken in by humans on a daily basis over a
lifetime without appreciable health risk.
Phthalates in tested school supplies do not contribute
significantly to total exposure of children.
Source: Ivaylo Georgiev
The European Commission Scientific Committee on Health and
Environmental Risks (SCHER)
concludes that the phthalates found
in the school supplies tested by the Danish Environment Protection
Agency do not significantly contribute to the total amount of phthalates
taken in by children.
Based on urine samples from people of different ages, it is concluded
that total exposures to individual
phthalates in the general
population are below tolerable daily intakes
(TDI), except in the case of
DBP for which efforts to further
reduce exposures are needed. Exposure to
DEHP may exceed the tolerable
intake in some specific population groups, namely people exposed through
medical procedures such as
Even in the case when children bite off pieces from erasers and
swallow them, the SCHER considers
that it is unlikely that this exposure leads to health
In any case, the Scientific Committee stresses the great uncertainty
of the evaluation carried out by the Danish EPA and recommends further