You've likely heard that lead--the heavy metal that attacks the nervous system and can cause learning problems in children--has been found in synthetic reusable shopping bags sold by some CVS, Winn-Dixie and Publix stores. (Wegman's dutifully recalled its bags due to lead in September.) Senator Charles Schumer has urged the FDA to investigate. Not surprisingly, the recycled-plastic bags are made in China, which also produces lead-contaminated toys--millions of which are recalled every year. Because so much lead in paint, ink and plastic goes undetected in consumer products, it's a good idea to treat any plastic bag--reusable or disposable--with caution, especially if it's worn and crumbling, and/or the ink is flaking off. (Lead dust from old paint remains a top environmental health threat to children in this country, so we should try to remove risks of exposure whenever possible.)
Tests of the shopping bags found lead to be present "potentially unsafe levels," The New York Times recently reported. But I must stop here to point out that, when it comes to children's health, there is no "safe" level of lead. The Tampa Tribune, which paid for some of the tests, warned that the lead content could qualify the bags as hazardous waste. Shoppers interviewed by the Times expressed frustration and dismay, but most said that the environmental benefits of reducing demand for disposable plastic bags outweighed the health risks of lead exposure. In light of the 92 million disposable shopping bags getting tossed per year in U.S., I agree. Let's not add reusable bags to the heap! Lead leaching from bags into our soil and water only makes things worse for everyone.
That said, do keep your safety, and your children's, in mind with these tips:
You probably don't let your kids chew on plastic shopping bags, but be aware that lead can rub off on their fingers and be carried to their mouths that way.
Choose shopping totes made from certified organic cotton or hemp, or other recycled natural materials, like Olive and Myrtle's Eco-Bags made of 100% recycled cotton.
Because recent studies have also shown that reusable shopping bags could be contaminated with E. coli and other pathogens, regularly wash yours with hot, soapy water, and keep raw meats separate from fresh produce, bread, and other foods.
Finally, try to avoid vinyl (PVC #3) bags, toys, shower curtains, raincoats, lunch pails and other products. This plastic is often made with lead and toxic phthalates.
Mindy Pennybacker is Whole Living’s “Econundrums” columnist. See her answers to reader questions and ask your own here. She is also editor of GreenerPenny.com and author of Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices.