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 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. Reusable bags, mostly made in China, account for about 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. market of grocery bags.
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."
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 United States since the late 1970s.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., on Sunday called on the Food and Drug Administration to open an investigation into the bags.
"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," he said.
The next day, Long Island, N.Y., supermarket chain King Kullen and Jacksonville-based Winn-Dixie said they were pulling some brands of reusable bags. Winn-Dixie and Lakeland-based Publix are asking suppliers to find ways to make reusable grocery bags with less lead.
The bags join other pilloried consumer goods that have raised eyebrows recently, such as children's jewelry and Shrek-themed novelty glasses that contained cadmium.
To Beth Lavigne, the bag brouhaha sounds more like a blip. "If there's a problem, they'll get it fixed."