Supermarket operators were scrambling to respond last week to widening reports that some of their supposedly eco-friendly reusable shopping bags might contain elevated levels of lead.
At least two companies — Jacksonville, Fla.-based Winn-Dixie Stores and Bethpage, N.Y.-based King Kullen Grocery Co. — last week said they had stopped selling the reusable bags in question. Their actions followed a similar move by Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets in September when two of its bag designs also tested high for lead levels.
“There is a need to look at this from a long-term environmental perspective to determine if the potential exists that these bags cannot be disposed of safely,” said Robin Miller, Winn-Dixie's director of media and public relations, who also pointed out that “all available research indicates these bags are safe for their intended customer use.”
An investigation by the Tampa Tribune found that bags from several Florida retailers contained some lead, including bags from Winn-Dixie and Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla. Another test last week by CTV News in British Columbia said it found “small amounts of lead” in a random sample of bags from IGA, Whole Foods, Thrifty Foods and Toys “R” Us in that region.
The lead levels in the reusable bags in the Florida test were found to be below the 300 parts per million that is the current limit for lead content in children's toys, as per the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008. That limit is slated to be reduced to 100 parts per million next August.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission has a safety threshold of 90 parts per million in paint used on consumer products.
Publix said it has asked suppliers to find ways to reduce the lead content in the bags, and is offering refunds to customers.
Maria Brous, a Publix spokeswoman, told SN the company has tested all of its reusable cloth bags, and found the lead content to be less than 1 part per million. The sole bag in question, she said, is a polypropylene bag with a University of South Florida theme, which tested at 194 parts per million.
“A reusable bag, at 194, does not pose a threat,” she said, given that the limit for toys is 300 parts per million.
The Tribune article said the lead content in the ink used to decorate the bags — the decorative logos appear to be where most of the lead is concentrated in these tests — might classify the bags as “hazardous waste,” however.
In results provided to SN, testing of 77 reusable bags conducted earlier this year by TEI Analytical found that 20 had lead levels of more than 90 parts per million, and of those 20, five had levels of over 200 parts per million.
Michael Lewis, owner of Edison, N.J.-based Team Beans LLC, which supplied the polypropylene bags in question to Publix, told SN last week that his company does extensive testing on its bags, which are manufactured in factories in Asia.
“We have never shipped a bag that was not within tolerance,” he said. “We have spent a fortune, and rightfully so, to do third-party independent testing of our products.”
The Tribune report noted that the lead in the bags would not appear to be a danger to food when the bags are new, but pointed out that wear and tear could release the metal, which has been linked to health hazards, especially in small children.
Landover, Md.-based Giant Food conducted voluntary testing of its reusable bags following the media reports and found that all bags were “within acceptable limits,” a spokesman told SN.
Safeway told the Washington Post that it found “no traceable lead” in tests last year and that it planned to conduct additional tests.
Additional reporting by Robert Vosburgh