Whooping cough, toxic chemicals in lunchboxes, and other back-to-school hazards

Just as kids are heading back to school, a slew of scary headlines warning about a precipitous rise in whooping cough in Massachusetts and toxic chemicals in school supplies may have some parents concerned about school health hazards. I asked a few local experts to provide some perspective on the latest safety concerns and how parents should deal with them.

1. Toxic chemicals in school supplies. An August report issued by the nonprofit Center for Health, Environment and Justice found that 15 out of 20 vinyl school supplies that were tested in a lab had elevated levels of phthalates, a synthetic chemical found in soft plastics. These products, which included soft lunchboxes emblazoned with Spiderman and Dora, backpacks, 3-ring binders, and raincoats, all had phthalates at higher than the maximum level allowed by the federal government for toys. (The government has no standard in place for phtahalates in school supplies.)

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The chemicals are thought by some to be worrisome because they bind to cells and can alter the production of certain hormones such as insulin or estrogen; some studies have linked high levels to an increased risk of diabetes.

“The research, conducted primarily in animals, is concerning, though we still don’t have a lot of data on human risks,’’ said Dr. Mark Schuster, chief of general pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital. “But if you have the type of kid who chews on everything from raincoat sleeves to backpack straps, you may want to look for products that don’t contain phthalates.’’

Products labeled “PVC-free’’ are a good indicator, because they aren’t made of vinyl, which is likely to have high amounts of phthalates, according to the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. Shiny plastic raincoats, backpacks, and lunch boxes often are made of vinyl, so stick with ones made from fabric.

2. Whooping cough. Massachusetts has had 425 cases of whooping cough so far this year, which is a three-fold increase, and while state vaccination rates are high for pertussis — the bacteria that causes whooping cough — some kids and their parents need to make sure they get a booster shot, especially if they have young children at home who haven’t received all their vaccinations.

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“The booster has only been around since 2005, so most adults haven’t had it yet,’’ Schuster said. Children need five doses before age six to get fully immunized; a booster is recommended every 10 years beginning at age 11, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

3. Back pain from backpacks. A combination of carrying backpacks stuffed with too much stuff and wearing them incorrectly can set kids up for chronic back problems and shoulder pain. “Kids should be carrying no more than 10 to 15 percent of their body weight on their backs,’’ said Clare Safran-Norton, a physical therapist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. That means an 80-pound elementary schooler shouldn’t be lugging more than 12 pounds — not a lot considering that one textbook can weigh five pounds.

Parents should ask whether the school will provide an extra textbook, either paper or electronic, to keep at home. They should also make sure their child is carrying the backpack correctly for full support.

The top of the backpack should be 1 to 2 inches down from the shoulder and the bottom should be within four inches of the waist. Both shoulder straps should be used as well as a chest and waist strap — if the bag has them — to keep weight evenly distributed. “It’s not ideal to use just one strap,’’ said Safran-Norton, even if it’s more accepted in the school hallways. Roller packs can be a good option, she added, provided kids don’t need to lug them up and down stairs, because they tend to be heavier the those without wheels.

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4. Added danger from marijuana. While most kids know about the dangers of drugs, many assume that pot is safe — perhaps even safer than alcohol — and, for this reason, may be more willing to try it or even use it on a daily basis. But a new study from Duke University suggests that teens who smoke marijuana regularly and become dependent on pot wind up lowering their IQs by an average of 8 points after they reach adulthood.

That’s akin to dropping from the 50th percentile for intelligence to the 30th.

“It’s one study and we always want to be cautious about drawing firm conclusions,’’ Schuster said, “but the results are compelling.’’ In talking to kids about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, parents should discuss this new finding, he added, and how the teenage brain is still developing and extremely vulnerable to any illicit substances. (The researchers didn’t find the same IQ-lowering effects in those who started smoking marijuana as adults.)

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