Dear EarthTalk: I heard that some reusable bags contain lead. Is this a major health concern? Can’t these bags be made to avoid such contamination?
— Donald Young, Cincinnati, Ohio
It’s true that some reusable shopping bags for sale in U.S. stores have been shown to contain lead, a neurotoxin linked to developmental, brain and kidney problems. The non-profit Center for Environmental Health (CEH) found that about 10 percent of the reusable bags it tested last year contained at least minute levels of lead, with Disney’s “Toy Story” and “Cars” plastic reusable shopping bags topping the charts with excessive levels to the tune of 15 times the federal limit for lead in children’s products.
Tests by other groups confirm CEH’s findings. A November 2010 report by the Tampa Tribune newspaper found elevated levels of lead in reusable bags purchased at Winn-Dixie, Publix, Walmart and Target stores — and prompted an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) into whether or not reusable shopping bags could be leaching lead into food items that people later eat. And earlier this year, the Center for Consumer Freedom, a trade group that opposes bans on plastic bags, reported that some 21 different polypropylene reusable bags sold at Safeway, Walgreen’s, Bloom and other stores had lead content above 100 parts per million — the highest level that many states allow in consumer packaging.
While the stores in question have pulled any such questionable bags from their shelves and in some cases stopped patronizing offending suppliers, consumers should take matters into their own hands with regard to selecting safer reusable shopping bags. While plastic reusable shopping bags are a step in the right direction compared to disposable plastic or paper bags, they are still derived from petroleum, even if partly recycled, and may contain other contaminants, especially if they feature ornate designs or patterns. The safest bet, according to CEH, would be cloth bags: Not only are they usually free of lead or any other potentially hazardous substances, but they also last for years and are easy to wash. One quality, reliable source for cloth bags is the Ossining, New York-based Eco Bags, from which you can order conveniently online and pay no shipping costs on any order of $100 or more.
Regarding washing to reduce or eliminate contaminants, public health experts worry that reusable shopping bags could become a breeding ground for impurities that lead to food poisoning, and recommend washing them every few uses at least to ward off contamination. A 2008 Environmental and Plastics Industry Council of Canada study found mold and bacterial levels in reusable bags 300 percent greater than Canadian health standards allow. And a 2010 joint University of Arizona and Limo Loma University study found that 97 percent of users did not wash their reusable shopping bags — which can harbor bacteria from repeated exposure to meats and vegetables. Half of the 84 bags studied contained coliform, a bacterium found in fecal matter, while 12 percent tested positive for E. coli.
The moral of the story is to make sure your reusable shopping bags can go through the clothes washer — and then wash them a few times a month. This way you will steer clear of contaminating the food you and your family eat with trace amounts of lead, and as such you will sleep easier each and every night.
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