13News investigation: Lead found in reusable bags


by David Ham


Posted on February 7, 2011 at 7:47 PM

Updated Tuesday, Feb 8 at 8:42 AM

HAMPTON ROADS -- A 13News investigation found some high levels of lead in grocery bags from local retailers.

A dozen reusable bags from Farm Fresh, Fresh Market, Harris Teeter, Kroger, CVS, Dollar Tree, Total Wine & More and Trader Joe's were tested along with a 13News bag that is used for promotional events.

When the lab results returned bags from Farm Fresh (468.7 Parts Per Million), Total Wine & More (468.6 PPM), Harris Teeter (328.0 PPM) and CVS (100.4 PPM) came back with the highest levels of lead.  All of the other bags tested at less than 10 PPM of lead.

Many states including Virginia only allow 100 PPM of lead in consumer packaging. The Consumer Product Safety Commission does not regulate reusable grocery bags but allows only 90 PPM of lead in children's toys.

"Anything that we know for a fact introduces a hazard especially to a child's environment we really should avoid it," said Colleen Becker, an industrial hygienist at Marine Chemist Service, Inc. in Newport News.

We asked the companies with bags that showed higher levels of lead about their products.

Farm Fresh's parent company SuperValu said the bag that we found that had a higher level of lead was a holiday promotional bag, adding that "[the bags] were tested before distribution in our stores and the results showed them to be lead-free. At the same time, the safety of our customers is always a top priority and we are working with our supplier to understand the discrepancies between those results and yours," said Luke Friedrich spokesperson for SuperValu.

Total Wine & More sent us a response through its bag manufacturer, Earthwise. Though our test showed that it did have 468.6 PPM of lead in the bag we tested, Earthwise said that all of its bags are below Consumer Product Safety Commission's standards.

"We certainly appreciate your concerns regarding the safety of reusable shopping bags.  We say with complete confidence and definitive testing evidence that Earthwise reusable bags are safe for consumer use.  Our reusable bags meet or exceed Federal Consumer Product Safety Standards in accordance with the CPSIA 2008.  These are stringent government standards that also apply to lead safety in toys and other consumer products.  Earthwise has a long standing testing protocol in place that ensures the products we produce and distribute are safe.  As part of this protocol, we routinely test a variety of materials and inks.  As a family owned small business, we are dedicated to providing safe, high quality products that are good enough for our own families as well as yours," said Adam Lerner of Earthwise.

Harris Teeter sent this statement:

"Harris Teeter requires its reusable bag manufacturer, Redi-Bag USA, to test the raw materials used in its bags, as well as the bag itself for lead and other metals prior to shipment. In light of recent media attention concerning heavy metals in reusable bags, Redi-Bag commissioned Centre Testing International (CTI) to perform an analytical review on behalf of Harris Teeter.  CTI has received and maintains certification from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.  The test results confirmed that Harris Teeter’s reusable bags contain well below 100 ppm for lead, cadmium, mercury and hexavalent chromium."

Our 13News lab test showed that the same style bag contained 328 PPM of lead.

CVS said that it had already pulled the bags off of the shelves when we asked about the bag that tested at 100.4 PPM of lead.

Environmental health science professor Dr. Anna Jeng at Old Dominion University says that if reusable bags with high amounts of lead aren't disposed of properly, they can be toxic to the environment.

"It will eventually leak from the bag and into the groundwater."

In clean soil, lead is naturally occurring and is usually at 5 PPM.

13News showed results from testing the reusable bags to the Food and Drug Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency.

A spokesperson from the FDA responded, "At FDA, we are concerned with food safety and the surfaces of the bag that could come into contact with the food.  Materials containing lead that are used in the bag to decorate the outside have little likelihood of migrating to food because there is little chance that they will come into contact with it.  Even if there is lead containing material on the inside of the bag, when we use these bags we typically carry packaged food or produce that is contained in an outer bag so there is little likelihood of any migration to that food.  Even if the produce were to fall out of the bags it is in, the short duration of time that it would be in contact with the inside of the bag would leave little likelihood of any migration, should there be any lead even in the inner surface of the bag," said Douglas Karas.

Justin Wilson, a senior analyst at non-profit consumer group, Consumer Freedom said that lead can get into reusable bags during the manufacturing process. The reusable bags are made from post-consumer waste and that waste can sometimes contain trace levels of lead.

The federal government does not regulate the manufacturing process.

In high doses, lead can create brain damage and kidney problems. Children and pregnant women are more sensitive to exposure.

In terms of dangers of trace lead in reusable bags, Becker says that the risk comes from lead dust that can be released over time when bags are used over and over again.

"Sunlight can deteriorate them. Constant use could deteriorate them"

Consumer advocates say to try to see if the reusable bag you're using has a low amount of lead, to check with retailers that are selling the bags.