Colored Plastic Bags Contain Illegal Amounts of Lead

BRATTLEBORO, Vermont, December 19, 2012 (ENS) - Bright solid-colored plastic bags may contain high concentrations of lead in violation of state laws, new tests conducted by the nonprofit Toxics in Packaging Clearinghouse have shown.

Based in Brattleboro and administered by the Northeast Recycling Council, the Clearinghouse helps coordinate the implementation of states' toxics in packaging laws. Since 2006, the Clearinghouse has screened packaging for compliance with state laws.

Nineteen U.S. states have toxics in packaging regulations but only nine states are Clearinghouse members: California, Connecticut, Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington.

As part of its routine screening program, the Clearinghouse screened 125 single-use shopping and mailing bags for the presence of the four regulated metals: lead, cadmium, mercury and hexavalent chromium in the inks used to print or color the bags.

The Clearinghouse screens packaging using x-ray fluorescence, or XRF, a quick and inexpensive screening tool for measuring the elemental composition of samples. For this study, packaging samples were screened using an Olympus Innov-X Systems DELTA handheld XRF instrument.

The project screened a total of 181 unique inks and colorants applied to or used to print on plastic or paper. A broad range of colors and shades of colors were screened, including blue, red, green, yellow, black, gray, orange, and purple.

Lead and cadmium are sometimes added to pigments used in colorants that make single-use shopping bags colorful or to flexible polyvinyl chloride packaging as an inexpensive plasticizer and UV stabilizer.

Although these substances may pose little direct risk to the average consumer handling the packaging, when the packaging material reaches landfills or incinerators, these toxic metals can enter the environment posing a risk to health and safety.

Only three bags failed the screening test for lead, but each of the failing samples contained about one percent lead by weight of the bag.

XRF screening was repeated by the Washington Department of Ecology prior to laboratory analyses at the Washington State Manchester Environmental Laboratory. Both the Washington State XRF screening and lab analysis confirmed that these packages were in violation of state laws.

"This means that for every 100 pounds of these shopping bags, we're introducing about one pound of lead into commerce," said Dr. Alex Stone, who is a safer chemical alternatives chemist with the State of Washington's Department of Ecology.

"These bags ultimately end up in our incinerators, landfills, or recycling streams," said Dr. Stone. "Lead is considered a persistent, bioaccumulative toxin. It's a metal and isn't destroyed, but only accumulates."

The shopping bags that contained lead were all vibrant solid-colored plastic bags - two were bright yellow and one red. Only one of the bags was marked with the country of origin, and in that case it was manufactured in the United States.

"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."

The Clearinghouse says the results of this project confirm that retailers should proceed with caution when specifying or purchasing yellow plastic shopping bags.

Overall, states were pleased with the high level of compliance with state toxics in packaging laws demonstrated by the latest tests.

An earlier screening project by the Clearinghouse, released in 2007, showed non-compliance for plastic shopping bags of a total of 60 samples screened - almost 17 percent.

The Clearinghouse included in the current screening some retail brand shopping bags that failed in the 2007 project. The results on these new bags indicated they were in compliance with state laws.

The report, "XRF Screening of Packaging Components: Inks & Colorants," is available for download on the TPCH website at:

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.

Correction: A photo originally used in this story has been removed. It seems the author did not have permission to use the photo. I apologize for any harm caused by the use of the photo.

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