A study by the Toxics in Packaging Clearinghouse found lead, cadmium or both in levels that exceed regulations enacted 15 years ago in 19 states in some plastic bags and flexible PVC pouches.
TPCH program manager Patricia Dillon said if the products were incinerated after disposal, potentially harmful dioxins could be released.
``I have no clue if there is a health risk from someone handling the package,'' she said in a telephone interview. ``I don't have the level of expertise in that. But, at some point, potentially, when it is incinerated, there could be a risk, so if alternatives are available, why use these type of packages?''
The report, released July 10, did not publicly identify the manufacturers, and suggested virtually all of the failed PVC flexible pouches were imported from China. Dillon said if a package - for example, a plastic pouch containing a comforter - was labeled ``made in China,'' the group assumed the packaging came from that country as well.
She said shopping bags were marked less frequently, making it more difficult to identify the country of origin. TPCH also did not determine how lead and cadmium and other heavy metals got into the packaging, but speculated that solvent-based inks and colorants, no longer used in the U.S., could be the culprit in shopping bags tested.
The Brattelboro, Vt.-based group also tested PVC blister packs, and did not find lead or cadmium in those. All of the products were tested with a state-of-the-art fluorescence analyzer.
``The good news is that all PVC blister packs passed the test,'' said Allen Blakey, spokesman for the Vinyl Institute in Arlington, Va. ``But there is a problem with meeting restrictions on heavy metals.''
That is particularly true in flexible pouches, where 61 percent failed the test, he said. That number is subject to some disagreement - manufacturers and distributors claimed only 15 percent of the products failed the test. But TPCH and VI agree there is greater need for producer responsibility to keep lead and cadmium out of packaging products, as well as out of the aluminum, glass, paper and steel packages that were part of the study.
``There needs to be greater vigilance on the part of the packaging supply chain to make sure that the material they specify does not contain the heavy metals,'' Dillon said. ``They need to get the supplier to show test results that prove that.''
The issue follows in the realm of recent China import problems, such as those involving toothpaste and pet food, she said.
``Other countries are not following the rules of the U.S., and anyone importing these packages needs to be aware of that,'' Dillon said.
``The supply chain is going to have to take responsibility,'' Blakey said. ``But that is difficult because even a certificate of compliance doesn't mean a package meets the regulations. This will be a challenge for companies importing, distributing and selling these products at retails to make sure the stuff they are ordering from overseas is in compliance.''
Blakey added that the average heavy-metal levels in TPCH's report are below the levels of metals used as stabilizers in the making of flexible pouches. He suggested perhaps the contamination in the tested packages occurred because manufacturing took place in a plant that did not conform to U.S. regulations, or that the product was made on equipment that was also used to make products out of lead.
Dillon said TPCH will conduct a second random sampling of packaging, starting in January, with a second grant it has acquired from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.