Some of us are so focused on the challenge of what to put in our kids’ lunchboxes that we don’t consider the lunchbox itself. But a 2006 report found disturbing amounts of lead in vinyl lunchboxes. The highest lead levels were found in the lining of the lunchboxes–yes, that would be the area closest to food. (You wash the organic apple, then snuggle it up against the lead lining of the lunchbox—yikes.) Here’s an update on toxic lunchboxes and some safe alternatives.
If your children’s school has yet to institute Alice Waters’ healthy and sustainable school-lunch curriculum, you’re probably packing their lunch in an effort to protect them from scary chicken things. But the lunchbox you pack it in may be even scarier. Reusable seems the most eco-friendly choice, but a report by the Center for Environmental Health found that common soft plastic (PVC) lunchboxes often contain lead. The level of lead in one lunch box, an Angela Anaconda box made by Targus International, tested at more than 90 times the legal limit for lead in paint in children’s products.
Not only were the highest levels found in the interior of the lunchboxes, but lead was found on the surface of the lining and could easily be transmitted to food or hands. Low levels of exposure to lead can result in reduced IQ, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, behavioral problems, stunted growth, impaired hearing, and kidney damage. At high levels of exposure, the effects are even more frightening and can result in death.
Since the time this report was published a number of leading lunchbox manufacturers have agreed to reduce or eliminate the amount of lead in their lunchboxes. As a result, although all lunchboxes are not yet free of lead, the number has decreased.
Some lunchbox makers are now labeling their products as lead-free, and you can test vinyl lunchboxes using a hand-held lead testing kit available at most hardware stores. But as much as we hate to rain on your lunchbox parade, the bad news doesn’t end with lead. A common additive to the vinyl used in lunchboxes is DEHP—a phthalate that is a suspected carcinogen and reproductive toxicant. So what to do? Might be best to steer clear of vinyl lunchboxes altogether and try one of these alternatives:
(And if you’re thinking “brown paper bags,” they are free of health hazards, but consider this: The average school-age child generates 67 pounds of lunch trash per school year. It seems most thoughtful to pack lunches with as little garbage as possible.)
Basura Bags: The feel-good lunchbox trifecta–non-vinyl, made from non-biodegradable recycled juice boxes by a women’s cooperative in the Phillipines!
Fun and pretty rainbow reed lunch boxes are handcrafted in Peru from sustainable reed fiber.
A cool canvas lunch bag with fold over top from Dharma Trading Co—it has the added plus of being machine-washable.
Our favorite “superhero” metal lunchboxes come in the guise of Shiva or Krishna. Or try a classic vintage metal lunchbox, the Center for Environmental Health recommends metal lunchboxes as a good alternative to vinyl.
Also, check out what other Care2 readers like to pack in their children’s lunchboxes here.