Did you go shopping for holiday presents at a big box retailer or shopping mall this season? Chances are you carried home at least one plastic shopping bag that could be a danger to your health.
New research suggests that clogging up our gutters, and poisoning our soil and water aren’t the only risks associated with rampant plastic bag use. According to a report by the Toxics in Packaging Clearinghouse [PDF], some vibrant solid-colored plastic shopping bags contain high concentrations of lead, a clear violation of state laws.
The Clearinghouse screened 132 single-use bags for the presence of lead, cadmium, mercury and hexavalent chromium. These toxic metals are in the inks used to print or color the bags, despite being regulated by 19 U.S. states. These laws prohibit the intentional use of any amount of these four metals in any packaging or packaging component, such as inks and colorants. If the metals are incidentally present (defined as an unintended or undesired ingredient) in the packaging component or material, the laws restrict the sum total concentration of these four metals to less than 100 parts per million.
The good news is that only three bags, two yellow and one red, failed the screening test for lead. The bad news is that the concentration of lead was approximately 10,000 ppm, or 1 percent by weight, in the bags that failed.
These results mean that “for every 100 pounds of these shopping bags, we’re introducing about 1 pound of lead into commerce,” said Alex Stone with the State of Washington’s Department of Ecology, which performed the screening with TPCH. Only one of the bags was marked with the country of origin, and in that case it was manufactured in the U.S. “It was a surprise to find a packaging sample manufactured in the U.S. that violated our state laws,” said Kathleen Hennings of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “In the past we’ve typically only found lead and cadmium in packaging manufactured overseas.”
Unfortunately, the report doesn’t name the companies caught using the toxic shopping bags. It does, however, tell us that 95 percent of the packaging samples (125) were shopping or mailing bags. Seven samples (5 percent) were food packaging. Similarly, 95 percent of the samples were inks or colorants on plastic, and 5 percent were inks on paper-based packaging.
Of course, an easy answer to this problem is to simply bring your own: cloth or mesh bags can be used many times, and can be made from recycled or organic materials. There’s a caveat, however. Most colored plastic shopping bags are distributed by non-food retailers, like clothing and electronics stores. While bringing a bag is common in grocery stores, it’s often viewed with suspicion at other types of retailers, and this can stop the public from attempting to bring them in. Still, with an increasing number of cities enacting plastic bag bans, consumers and retailers may be forced to alter their perspective.
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