Lead in Reusable Bags: What You Need to Know
In a January 24 report, the nonprofit Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) stated that reusable polypropylene bags from a number of large retailers, including CVS, Walgreens and Staples, contained volumes of lead several times the level allowed by some states. The story quickly spread, with some people questioning the safety of the shopping bags, while others questioned the accuracy of the tests and the motives of the CCF.
"The media's scrutiny of the product safety of these bags has been inconsistent, misleading, and in some cases, wholly inaccurate," said Christopher Duffy, vice president of marketing for Bag Makers, Union, Ill. To address distributor concerns, Promo Marketing spoke with Duffy and Rick Brenner, CEO of Bridgeport, Connecticut-based Prime Line, both leaders in the promotional bags industry, to explain what the CCF report means and how it will affect distributors and the industry.
Some of the confusion begins with the lead requirements. "There are lead standards in CPSIA and FHSA that apply to children's products, but those don't necessarily apply," explained Brenner. "And there are certain FDA requirements for food packaging materials but it isn't clear that those apply either." CPSIA currently requires no more than 300 parts-per-million (ppm) lead in a product substrate, although this may change in August, and 90 ppm lead in paint, but these regulations only apply to children's products. Further, some states already enforce a 100 ppm lead limit while others do not. "It is likely that there is no current federal regulation that applies to reusable grocery bags," Brenner said.
While there is confusion surrounding federal requirements and legal limits, there is little doubt regarding the alleged dangers of most polypropylene bags. "For a number of reasons, I don't believe end-buyers and consumers have anything to worry about regarding the safety of their reusable bags," said Duffy.
"First of all, the legal threshold of 100 ppm translates into such trace amounts that it would take excessive amounts of time and internal exposure to create even a trace of health concern," he explained. "Second, these bags do not come in direct contact with packaged foods so there is no avenue for 'transfer contamination.' Finally, no direct tie to excessive lead content and polypropylene has ever been established."
Duffy continued, "At one time, laminated nonwoven totes were targeted as being unsafe, and it was later surmised that the lamination material itself (not the polypropylene) was the culprit. Now, in CCF's story, most of the purported unsafe bags have excessive lead in their bottom inserts. Again, it's not the nonwoven polypropylene material, but the polyethylene bottom insert."
Even though the dangers of lead in reusable bags is overstated, that doesn't change the fact that, as Brenner said, "perception is reality when it comes to PR about potentially toxic substances." Distributors should know that the products they sell are safe and why, but should also be prepared to encounter skepticism and resistance due to the negative media attention.
"The important take-away for our industry is that as suppliers and distributors we are all fiduciaries of the most trusted asset of the companies who buy our products: their good name," Brenner explained. "The companies who purchase promotional products—whose name is going on the products—are trusting, in effect, that we won't embarrass them by putting their name on products that are either not compliant, not safe or not smart."
Fortunately, distributors have a number of methods to show they've done their due diligence when selling products to clients. As Duffy explained, there is one easy way to be certain that a supplier's products are compliant with all federal regulations: ask. "Ask them for specific numbers (e.g., ppm) and for a General Certificate of Conformity to support their findings. Suppliers who have done their research and testing will not hesitate to offer this information. They know that product safety is a competitive advantage and are willing to make the investment in safety and integrity of their products," he said.
Beyond asking suppliers to provide numbers directly, there are independent resources to verify product compliance, like the Quality Certification Alliance. "In the case of QCA-certified suppliers, QCA professional staff as well as an independent third party examiner—Bureau Veritas—has verified the quality of these processes through on-site audits at the supplier's headquarters and at factories in China," Brenner said. "There are many other fine suppliers in the industry with equally competent supply chain processes. The key point is for distributors to ensure that the supplier involved is doing everything necessary to spec and produce safe and compliant product and is knowledgeable about the state and federal regulations involved."
"The most important thing a distributor can do is to buy from suppliers they trust to have disciplined and thorough product safety and regulatory compliance processes in place," he added.
Both Brenner and Duffy emphasized the importance or product safety and federal compliance, while also noting that distributors should remain informed and not allow misinformation in the news to sway them. "Lead content in a reusable bag should not be an automatic assumption," Duffy said. "The vast majority of reusable bags fall well within the legal thresholds and are entirely compliant. Recent media scrutiny would have consumers believe this is a systemic trait to such bags, but that simply isn't true."