November 1, 2010

The road to going green has a new speed bump: Researchers have discovered that some reusable shopping bags contain lead levels that exceed federal product safety standards. The addition of another dangerous product to well-intentioned Oregon households may not affect the use of sustainable materials, but the news was certainly unsettling. One East Coast lawmaker and several consumer advocacy organizations have asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to investigate.

A Florida newspaper recently broke the story when it published the results of laboratory tests done on reusable bags from two grocery stores (both primarily operating in the South). The tests showed that that the paint used to customize the bags with brand-friendly illustrations contains lead. More detailed illustrations that use more paint, especially yellow and green, are more likely to have high lead content.

There are no federal guidelines for lead content in reusable shopping bags, so the researchers went to other sources. Children’s products, for example, are prohibited from having more than 300 parts per million of lead; next summer, that will change to 100 parts per million. Consumer products generally are limited to 90 parts per million.

The researchers tested a couple of bags from each chain and found levels of 117, 121, 87 and 194 parts per million. The different levels were attributed to different production runs. Not all bags are created equal.

The bags tested were manufactured in China and did not list lead in the contents of the material. Other stores’ custom bags showed lead content in independent tests.

Chances of injury are remote, because the lead in the paint isn’t easily transferred to the contents of the bag. The main risk occurs as the bags age: The paint can flake off, or the fibers can break down to the point that lead is released. The presence of lead does pose a problem when it comes time to dispose of the bags — do they count as toxic waste?

It’s just one glitch in the learning process, according to an alternative energy consultant. He pointed out that the fluorescent bulbs that are so popular now have mercury in them, but they save energy. But they are a fair alternative while we look for something better, just as the lead-riddled reusable bags are.

Source: The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune “Tests Show Lead Levels Vary in Reusable Grocery Bags” 11/14/10

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