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Vietnamese experts concerned about toxic Chinese fragrant learning tools

In recent years, many kinds of learning tools like pens, pencils, and notebooks imported from China have been manufactured with fragrance added and sold at a cheap price in Vietnam, luring more and more students and parents.

Fragrant pencils sold at a bookstore in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Fragrant pencils sold at a bookstore in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

It is easy to see children asking their parents to buy them fragrant learning tools at bookstores in Ho Chi Minh City.

Children say yes

One of the most favorite items of elementary students is a kind of pencil which not only smells good but also looks beautiful with cartoon patterns.

It is being sold at many bookstores in District 1, Phu Nhuan District, Tan Phu District, and Tan Binh District.

Ha, the parent of Hoang My, a first grader in Tan Phu, said her daughter was fascinated by the kind of pencil her friends used at school and asker her mother to buy it for her.

At a bookstore also in Tan Phu, a customer named Minh said her daughter has used nearly 10 pencils of that kind.

“She has kept asking me to buy the same kind of that fragrant pencil every time she lost it,” Minh said.

The pencils have Chinese-language labels and are sold at a very cheap price, only from VND4,000 (US$0.18) to VND7,000 ($0.31) a piece.

Fragrance is also added to other kinds of pen.

A set of color pens wrapped in a Barbie-themed package sold at a bookstore named M. in District 1 even have smells associated with their colors.

For instance, orange pens smell like orange, the purple ones smell like grapefruit while the pink have a strawberry scent.

The set is alluring to little students thanks to its colorful look, redolence and a very cheap price, at VND 19,000 ($0.85) for six pens.

Like the fragrant pencils, pen sets are also on sale at bookstores in many districts like District 1, District 3, Phu Nhuan District, Go Vap District, and Tan Binh District.

In addition, notebooks now smell like flowers, or even stronger.

Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper correspondents found a number of notebooks with a pungent aroma at a bookstore named N. in Tan Binh.

Meanwhile, at T. bookstore in Tan Phu, although its staff told customers that the bookstore does not sell fragrant notebooks, there are still numerous items with strong smells put between normal notebooks.

Students buy notebooks with an aroma at a bookstore in Tan Phu District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Experts say no

Several pundits have warned that the fragrance from those learning tools could be created from toxic chemicals.

According to Vu Ngoc Bao, deputy president and general secretary of the Vietnam Pulp and Paper Association, only a number of big paper companies in Vietnam specializing in manufacturing learning tools could produce notebooks.

Many small firms place orders for manufacturers in China to produce notebooks then add their names to the packaging, as producing them requires costly modern technology.

Bao added that those kinds of fragrant pen and pencil are imported from China.

“The fragrance added to student notebooks is certainly made from synthesized chemicals,” he said.

“Vietnam lacks tools to accredit product quality like in developed countries so toxic goods can still enter the country,” he said. “It’s time to have national standards on notebooks to protect students’ health.”

Dr. Trinh Van Dung from the chemical engineering faculty of the University of Technology under the Vietnam National University – Ho Chi Minh City agreed that the manufacturers of those aromatic products utilize synthesized chemicals because they would not be that cheap if they were produced with a scent created from natural oils.

Those substances are usually bought from unknown sources, Dr. Dung said, adding those from countries like Germany will be 20-30 times more expensive than imports from China.

Meanwhile, Nguyen Van Minh, vice president of the Vietnam Essential Oils, Aromatherapy and Cosmetics Association, also said producers often use toxic chemicals, such as benzene, to make low-cost learning tools fragrant.

If students touch those items, the toxins in them could permeate their body through their skin, Minh warned.

He added that manufacturers usually use non-biodegradable benzene to add to those learning tools to keep them fragrant for a long time.

“Since it’s non-biodegradable, the toxins will build up in the body for a certain period of time, then it becomes a substance that prevents the growth of cells and may cause cancer,” Minh warned.

The expert said it is advisable to take those items off the market and warn parents against allowing their kids to use them.

Market management officials should recommend that people not use products having a very strong scent since they are often made with synthesized chemicals which will not decompose, even after a hundred years.