Reusable Shopping Bags Not A Public Health Threat

Christophe A.G. Tulou | 12/14/2010, 5:42 a.m.
Christophe A.G. Tulou - Director, District Department of the Environment Courtesy Photo

Recent news reports have noted that traces of lead can be found in some reusable shopping bags and there is a concern over whether or not these bags might present a health risk to the public. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has launched its own investigation over the matter, in accordance with a request from U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY). While the FDA investigation will provide the final word on what risks different bags may present, it is important that the public understand the dos's and don'ts related to disposable shopping bags so as to avoid undue worry, time, and money.
First, not all reusable bags contain lead. Those that do usually have varying levels of lead, in the ink and/or the bag fabric, which are comparable to small amounts of lead found in other household items. Small amounts of lead are or have been used as a stabilizing agent in many vinyl products, including purses, mini-blinds, and even extension cords. With all these items, when they are used as originally intended, they do not pose any direct health threat to the public. This same principle also applies to your reusable shopping bags. They do not pose any serious risk of lead contamination to food that is placed on them, in them, or to hands that touch them.

The bags, however, can become a more serious health threat if used in ways other than for their intended purpose. For example, it is important that adults keep reusable shopping bags away from young children, as they may pose a health threat if chewed upon. Lead is a powerful neurotoxin. Children under the age of 6 are most vulnerable to lead's harmful effects as their brain and central nervous systems are still developing and are easily susceptible to damage. Parental supervision is always important.

Additionally, the bags should be discarded once they begin to show signs of deterioration. While adding lead to the waste stream is never desirable, in this case the quantity involved is extremely small and the bags can be disposed of with regular trash.

Because of these multiple concerns about reusable bags, the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) has discontinued distribution of its current stock of reusable shopping bags. Residents already in possession of DDOE's reusable bags can continue to use them as shopping bags until they begin to deteriorate, without fear of lead contamination. Moving forward, DDOE will only distribute bags known to be lead-free.

The nation is learning almost on a daily basis of a new product - most often an imported product - that contains a dangerous substance. While it's true that these reusable bags do not pose a direct threat to public health, it is important to keep in mind that we do have significant lead hazards in many homes in the District. In fact, most experts agree that the most serious lead threat to children's health consists of exposure to old paint in homes built before 1978, in particular exposure to lead from small paint particles that mix with household dust in homes. Similarly, children can easily get exposed to lead when repair or maintenance work disturbs old paint and generates lead dust. Keeping paint intact, keeping children away from deteriorating paint, and ensuring that safe, health-protective work practices are used whenever old paint is being worked on, are the most effective ways to protect our vulnerable children from lead contamination and are required by District law.

Following these precautionary measures will allow residents to enjoy using their reusable bags, and do their part to make the District a greener city.

For More Information from The District Department of the Environment, please visit: green.dc.gov