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Grocery Bag Lead Test Results Flummox Shoppers

Shopper Andrea Harrison says despite reports about lead in reusable bags, she'll keep using them as her way of keeping plastic out of waterways.
Elizabeth Shogren
Shopper Andrea Harrison says despite reports about lead in reusable bags, she'll keep using them as her way of keeping plastic out of waterways.

Do you bring reusable bags to grocery stores? They're good for the environment, right?

Recent lab reports in Florida and New York show that some reusable sacks contain elevated levels of lead. Consumers are grappling with what to do with this news.

In the parking lot of a Wegmans supermarket in Lanham, Md., Andrea Harrison was pushing a cart full of Thanksgiving groceries packed in reusable bags. She finds them easier to handle than those flimsy plastic ones, and she has a bigger reason.

"It's about trying to keep as many pollutants out of our waterways as we can," Harrison said.

Like many conscientious consumers across the country, Harrison was confronted with a dilemma recently when media outlets reported that The Tampa Tribune had found elevated lead in shopping bags from some Florida supermarkets.

"Every week you hear a report about something you think is good turns out to be bad and something you think is bad turns out to be not so bad. And hopefully, one day we'll get it right," Harrison added.

The Florida report followed a study by the Empire State Consumer Project. Judy Braiman says her group sent lots of bags -- from grocers and other retailers -- to a laboratory.

"The one that came up very high was a shopping bag from Wegmans supermarket," Brainman says.

Nineteen states have laws that restrict the amount of lead in packaging to 1 part per million. One Wegmans bag had nine times that much lead. A second also tested high.

Jo Natale, a spokeswoman for Wegmans, says the stores had sold about 100,000 of the offending designs -- a holiday pattern and a close-up of peas in a pod. "Both of these designs are still safe to use," Natale says. "There is no food safety concern. There is no health concern. Disposal is the only concern."

Natale says the store hasn't figured out yet how to dispose of the thousands of bags consumers have returned.

So, should you worry about your bags?

"There are lots of other things out there that you should be more concerned about," says Bruce Hoogesteger, a chemist who studied the bags. He sees little risk of food getting contaminated.

The Food and Drug Administration agrees.

"FDA doesn't view the reusable grocery bags as a safety hazard," says spokesman Doug Karas. He says the lab that studied bags for The Tampa Tribune found lead in the outside decoration, which wouldn't touch food. And besides, Karas says, most food is wrapped in other packaging before it's bagged.

Neither the Florida nor the New York environment agency has raised concerns about consumers throwing out the bags. And the United States Environmental Protection Agency says modern landfills protect the environment from hazards like this.

Many consumers seemed to take the news in stride, but not all.

"I'm shocked," said Liz Nixon, who was heading into Wegmans with her two young children and lots of bags. "It seems a bit silly to put anything that's dangerous in a reusable bag that's supposed to be helping the environment, and especially something around kids or pets because my dog certainly gets these and chews on them," she says.

Still, Nixon says she plans to keep using her bags.

"But I'm going to go research it, and I'm not getting lead bags. It's outrageous," Nixon adds.

Environmental groups want the lead out too. In the meantime, they're urging people not to go back to the old paper or plastic.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Shogren is an NPR News Science Desk correspondent focused on covering environment and energy issues and news.