A couple of days ago the Tampa Tribune published a story about tests they had done on reusable shopping bags, showing high levels of lead in some bags; the story has since been picked up by other news outlets. The study claimed that some of the lead levels were as high as 194 parts per million (ppm), which is higher than the amount normally allowed in toys (90 ppm), and in fact may theoretically require further testing before landfill disposal in the US. Should we be worried?
The bags with high lead contents were generally those with elaborate painted designs – the lead appears to be in the paint. It is in a form that generally isn’t very readily extracted from the bags, unless the paint is flaking and falling off. Furthermore, painted designs are generally on the outside of bags, while most people put their groceries inside (unless you use your bags inside out). That doesn’t mean there’s absolutely no possibility of the bag’s contents coming into contact with lead, but in most cases it would be pretty minimal. On top of that, most groceries are in some form of container (bag, box, can etc.) – the exception might be produce, but even then most people use produce bags and (hopefully) wash their produce before eating it. Overall, it doesn’t look like the lead in these bags is likely to be a health concern.
If you are worried about lead, buy bags that don’t have painted pictures and patterns all over them (and in particular avoid green and yellow designs, which tend to have more lead). I think bacterial contamination is probably a bigger issue for these bags, but even that shouldn’t be a big problem for most people with proper food handling and care for the bags.