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Tests Show Lead Levels Vary in Reusable Grocery Bags

Tampa Tribune; November 14, 2010

By Richard Mullins

TAMPA - Grocery chain Winn-Dixie sells a reusable grocery bag with two sturdy handles, pictures of cute baby faces and enough toxic lead to alarm health experts.

Reusable Bags
Bags from Winn-Dixie, left, and Publix were found to contain lead.

The bag contains enough lead that Hillsborough County could consider the bag hazardous if thrown out with household trash, according to independent laboratory tests commissioned by The Tampa Tribune.

It's not just Winn-Dixie.

Tribune tests also showed some Publix reusable bags had lead levels that exceed federal limits for paint and exceeded rules coming soon for children's toys. Though the bags comply with other limits, Publix, in a cautionary move, asked its bag suppliers to lower lead content in bags. That decision came after officials were told the results of the Tribune tests.

Winn-Dixie officials said they have an "opportunity to improve" after Tribune tests showed bags exceeded federal limits for paint. This presents a dilemma for shoppers who avoid paper or plastic for environmental reasons. Lead is linked to learning disabilities in children and fertility problems in adults. The answer for shoppers appears to be: Not all bags are created equal, the lab tests showed. The more elaborate the illustrations on the bags, the more likely they contained toxins. Yellow and green paint on bags is a common carrier of lead. "For me, personally, I would balk at buying these types of bags," said Hugh Rodrigues, owner of Thornton Laboratories, which tested 13 bags for the Tribune. "I'd choose paper bags." Those can be recycled easily, he said.

The Tampa Tribunepurchased two-dozen reusable bags from the largest grocery companies in the Bay area this fall and paid for two rounds of tests at Thornton Laboratories in Tampa, which regularly tests food and chemicals for industrial clients, and has tested children's jewelry for the Tribune.

Some health advocates say there is no safe level for lead, calling it a toxin at any level.

Florida has no clear regulation focused on lead in bags, so lab officials and health advocates point to a conflicting series of government rules regarding consumer products.

Currently, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission allows 300 parts per million of lead in children's products. In August, that level will fall to 100. And any paint on consumer products can contain no more than 90 parts per million.

The packaging industry is pushing for a limit of 100 parts per million, and it helped enact laws in 19 states to limit lead. Florida has not signed on, said Patty Dillon, a spokeswoman for the Toxics in Packaging Clearinghouse, administered by the Northeast Recycling Council, Inc.

In the first round of tests, the Baby Faces bag from Winn-Dixie showed the highest levels of lead, 121 parts per million, and showed 117 in the second.

A bag from Publix with a University of South Florida theme approached the 100 parts per million threshold, with a level of 87 parts per million in the first tests, and showed 194 parts per million in a second test — the highest result of any bag in Tribune tests.

The differences between the two tests likely came from different production runs at the manufacturer, Rodrigues said.

The lead appears to be in a form that is not easily extracted or leached, Rodrigues said. It is not in a form that would rub off on food simply by touching the bag, like wet paint, he said, but over time, bags wear down and paint can flake off and threads can fray, releasing the lead.

Environmental Protection Agency rules require that any product with a lead content higher than 100 parts per million should technically undergo further testing before landfills accept them for disposal, he said.

Publix officials stress that their bags are not toys or paint, and thus comply with current federal rules. But after reviewing the Tribune test results last week, Publix officials said they took action.

"We have already contacted the supplier of this bag and asked them to look at reducing the lead content, even though it is within government safety standards," said spokeswoman Shannon Patten. "We would never knowingly carry something in our stores that wasn't in compliance with government regulations, and we work hard every day to bring safe, high-quality products to our customers."

Publix will refund the purchase price of bags to any concerned shopper, she said. Winn-Dixie also said it would refund the cost of a bag. Lead in bagsmay have emerged as the surprise issue of the year for grocers and consumers.

Shoppers have been switching to reusable totes, avoiding plastic bags to help the environment and lessen the nation's dependence on oil used to make the plastic. Some states want to ban inexpensive plastic bags or impose a tax to discourage their use. Reusable bags seemed the natural solution.

Fitting the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle mantra, reusable bags have become popular, even fashionable, with elaborate designs, holiday themes and sports team logos. Publix has sold 13 million reusable bags, saving an estimated 1 million plastic bags a day.

However, this summer, an independent group tested bags from the upscale Wegmans grocery company and found some contained lead at 799 parts per million, well beyond levels that health officials consider problematic.

Wegmans commissioned its own tests, which also found lead, and immediately stopped selling two styles of bags, one with a green pea design and one with a holiday illustration. (No other designs were affected.) Wegmans posted signs in stores telling customers the bags were safe to use, but should be returned to the store before disposal.

"Lead is a neurotoxin, a carcinogen and affects children's IQ," said Judy Braiman of Rochesterians Against the Misuse of Pesticides, the first outside group to test Wegmans bags. "It's ironic that everyone is really trying to be good for the environment, and then these bags have lead all over the place."

Winn-Dixie officials reviewed the Tribune results and said they were confident their bags were "safe to use and reuse as intended." That said, the Tribune test "suggests there is an opportunity to improve this solution as it pertains to disposal of these bags, and ensure the ongoing benefits to our customers and the communities we serve."

For those hopingto help the environment, perhaps a more important issue is what to do with bags when they wear out. Among rules for disposal, bags fall into a gray area.

The rules are clear with things such as tube televisions and paint. They are considered hazardous waste, and residents must bring them to the government for special handling.

But there are no requirements for bags, said James Ransom, a spokesman for Hillsborough County's solid waste program.

But Ransom said the basic chemical content of these bags tested by the Tribune would require special handling under Hillsborough County rules, and he advises consumers who know about issues with their bags to handle them differently than general household trash.

Florida has come a long way from the days when local governments dug holes, dumped trash and set it on fire, said Richard Tedder, a program administrator for the state Department of Environmental Protection. He said he thinks the bags would be fine in landfills, especially the more modern dumps with liners to prevent groundwater contamination.

However, Rodrigues, Braiman and Dillon said there is a multiplying effect of millions of Americans buying reusable bags and tossing them out over time.

All this presentsproblems for shoppers.

Reusable bags don't list lead as an ingredient in the material. All the bags tested by the Tribune were made in China. A tag on the USF bag from Publix says to hand wash separately and line dry.

Shoppers could try using the home lead tests sold in stores, but those are primarily designed for testing paint on hard surfaces such as walls or toys.

The bags tested by the Tribune with the highest lead levels tended to have the most elaborate designs or illustrations that covered the entire surface.

By contrast, a nylon bag sold by Target with almost no illustrations had almost undetectable levels of lead. Also, the simplest bags from Sweetbay, Walmart and Publix contained little lead.

For shoppers, the best advice might be: If you're concerned about your bags, take them back to the store.