Are Lead-Tainted Reusable Shopping Bags Actually Dangerous?
In the past few months, studies have shown that some of the inexpensive reusable shopping bags distributed by several national grocery and drugstore chains contain high concentrations of lead. The most recent study, published Jan. 24 by the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), found that bags sold at CVS and Safeway are the worst offenders, with lead concentrations of 697 and 672 parts per million (ppm), respectively – nearly seven times the 100 ppm limit for lead in packaging set by the 19 states that have adopted toxicity limits.
According to Patty Dillon, program manager of a nonprofit that enforces toxicity legislation called the Toxics in Packaging Clearinghouse (TPCH), Chinese manufacturers sometimes use lead chromate, a cheap yellow pigment, to color their packaging. The same manufacturers also use lead as a “plasticizer” to improve the flexibility of materials. Dillon said these factors may explain the high lead levels in some reusable bags made in China and then sold in the U.S.
These lead-tainted bags certainly sound dangerous, but are they? And if you own some of the reportedly lead-laden bags already, should you go so far as to get rid of them?
No. If you're worried that the lead in these bags will rub off onto your groceries or leech from the handles into your skin, Dillon says it won't happen. Even with chemicals, lead is difficult to strip from materials in which it exists, so it doesn't just come off onto your food or hands.
Furthermore, there's no health danger in just being near lead-tainted bags. According to the Center for Disease Control, lead gets into the blood by being ingested, either along with food or water , or sometimes by inhaling lead-based paint particles in the air. When a person ingests or inhales enough lead to send his "blood lead level" above 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, he runs the risk of getting lead poisoning. This can cause mental deterioration, severe pain, and even death.
For one of the lead-tainted bags in question to be a health risk, you would have to eat it, not just hold it. A back-of-the-envelope calculation of the approximate number of lead particles in a 697 ppm CVS bag shows that it would indeed top the CDC's recommended lead limit. But so would a 100 ppm grocery bag or container, and those are considered "safe" by government regulations. So the only lesson learned is that packaging materials should never be eaten.
Of course there are some drawbacks to high lead concentrations. The 100 ppm lead limit for packaging, adopted by 19 state legislatures and enforced by TPCH, exists to keep heavy metals out of municipal solid waste and recycling systems. "Most packaging is disposable and has a very short lifespan," said Dillon. "So when you throw it away, it breaks down and may enter the water table."
"Why introduce lead and toxics into packaging when it's going to end up in the water?" she said. "We would like packaging to contain no lead, but the limit is 100 ppm to allow for background environmental lead levels."
The main factor that makes CVS bags more hazardous than others, then, is that more lead will eventually leech out from them when they start breaking down in landfills. But is this worse than the environmental impact of using disposable plastic bags, which also have well-documented consequences for the environment? Life's Little Mysteries asked J. Justin Wilson, senior research analyst at CCF, to explain the take-away message of his organization's findings.
Wilson said CCF conducted its study on reusable shopping bags largely to combat environmental consciousness groups that advocate using reusable bags instead of paper or plastic disposable ones. "We're trying to point out the hypocrisy of their claims, since reusable bags turn out to violate environmental standards too." In other words, the organization has a major ulterior motive: They don't want government regulation of consumer products at all.
If you are an environmentally conscious consumer, though, the CCF study probably isn't going to make you think better of disposable plastics, or cause you to scoff at the government's environmental regulations. The sensible reaction to their investigation is the following: Continue to use rather than throw away any reusable bags you have already, even if they contain lead, since they won't affect your health. They'll only do damage if they end up in a landfill. And in the future, buy reusable shopping bags manufactured in the U.S., since these will contribute less to the lead (or plastic) content in landfills. Paper or plastic disposable bags still come in last place.
- Can Plastic Bottles Make You Sick?
- How Does Salmonella Contaminate Vegetables?
- Are Organic Eggs Safer?
Got a question? Send us an email and we'll look for an expert who can crack it.
Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover
Life's Little Mysteries: Gift Edition Hardcover Book
Uncover the truth behind more than 100 mysteries that surround us every day with our new hardcover book! Perfect for gifts and classrooms, and suitable for all ages. Some of the included mysteries are:
- Why Do Cats Land on Their Feet?
- How Long Does it Take to Make Petrified Wood?
- What Everyday Things Around Us Are Radioactive?
Find out all of this and much, much more in our NEW hardcover book.
It makes a great gift idea for all ages. more info>>