Retailers have made it relatively easy for consumers to participate in a greener lifestyle by offering reusable canvas totes. Marketed as one small change individuals could make to reduce their carbon footprint and considered an environmentally preferable alternative to plastic grocery bags, reusable bags have become a popular, easy way to be green.
So when the Tampa Tribune commissioned a study that found alarming, potentially unsafe levels of lead in some of these reusable bags it came as a big surprise to eco-conscience consumers who assumed they were doing the "right thing."
The Tribune reported that many of the most decorated reusable bags - manufactured in China and offered at some major grocery stores here in the U.S. - contain elevated lead levels that exceed federal limits and high enough to be considered "hazardous waste if residents put them in their household trash."
Laboratory tests found "the most elaborately decorated bags", from Publix and Winn-Dixie, "had the highest concentration of lead". The Tribune noted bags from Target and Wal-Mart, with relatively plain designs, had much lower, nearly "undetectable" levels of lead.
Lead is a known developmental neurotoxin linked to lowering children's IQ, learning disorders and fertility problems.
Although the Tribune and most health officials acknowledged there is no immediate threat, some are concerned the lead containing paint could flake or rub off onto foods transported in the bags. Others are more concerned the bags could, over time, build up and then break down in landfills where the lead could contaminate the soil and work its way into the water system.
In response to the Tribune report, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Consumer Production Safety Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asking them to conduct a thorough investigation.
"When our families go to the grocery store looking for safe and healthy foods to feed their kids, the last thing they should have to worry about are toxic bags, said Sen. Schumer in a statement. "Federal agencies need to put a ban in place for reusable bags that have lead in them."
On November 16th, the FDA agreed to an official investigation to determine the safety of reusable canvas bags.
Fortunately, most retailers are responding to the Tribune's findings by giving consumer's refunds and asking suppliers to reduce the amount of lead in their bags even though experts have determined there is no safe level of exposure to this highly toxic metal.
Toxic reusable bags are the latest example of how products imported from China have not received the regulatory scrutiny consumer's expect. Lead laced toys, sulfur dioxide containing drywall, and baby formula contaminated with melamine have all come with the "Made in China" label and posed a potential threat to human health.
These toxic reusable totes are also another example of "green washing" - selling a product under the pretense that it's "eco-friendly" when in fact it is not.
If you are concerned about reducing the amount of non-biodegradable plastic in our environment and are not confident reusable bags are truly safe, recycled paper bags or 100% organic cotton totes, remains your best choice.
Deirdre Imus is the Founder and President of The Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center (r)at Hackensack University Medical Center and Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Imus Cattle Ranch for Kids with Cancer. Deirdre is the author of four books, including three national bestsellers. She is a frequent speaker on green living and children's health issues, and is a contributor to FoxNewsHealth.com. For more information go to www.dienviro.com