November 21, 2010 in Business

Shoppers shrug off fears about toxic reusable bags


ROCHESTER, N.Y. — So you care about the environment, and you take a reusable shopping bag with you to the grocery store to avoid polluting the planet with countless plastic sacks. Now you find out your bag is made with potentially harmful lead. What’s an environmentalist to do?

If you’re like Elnora Cooper, nothing.

“I’m not eating the bag … and I’m not going to get rid of it,” Cooper, 68, said with a chuckle after walking out of a Wegmans Food Markets store in Rochester this week with a reusable bag under her arm.

The latest in a long line of ominous warnings about potentially dangerous products concerns synthetic but reusable bags that may contain traces of lead. The stir in supermarkets and Congress is less about whether the toxin might rub off on food and more about whether they could accumulate in landfills and create an environmental hazard.

But since the whole point of the bags is that they’re to be kept, not tossed out, and because the concentration of lead in them is so low, some shoppers are convinced there’s little risk of an imminent toxic catastrophe.

“I switched to reusable bags six or seven years ago to keep plastic out of landfills,” said Cooper, a retired nurse. “I’ll keep using the one with the lead, truthfully, before I start using plastic again.”

Lead can cause learning disabilities in children and fertility problems in adults if ingested.

A recent investigation by the Tampa Tribune found excessive amounts of lead in reusable bags bought at Winn-Dixie and other major retailers. The lead appears to be in a form that’s not easily extracted or “leached” out.

But over time in a landfill, laboratory experts told the newspaper, the bags break down and paint can flake off. Lead was used in the paint to add color, opaqueness and durability; it has been banned in wall paint in the U.S. since the late 1970s.

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