Your Reusable Shopping Bag Could Be Making Your Family Sick

Wednesday May 29, 2013 | BY |
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Shopping Bag

It’s eco-friendly, but is it making your family sick?

That reusable shopping bag you’re taking to the grocery store could be eco-friendly, but it could also be filled with bacteria that could send your family to the hospital.

When was the last time you washed that bag? Researchers say that if you’re like most people, it wasn’t recently enough.

Researchers Find E. Coli in Reusable Shopping Bags

Effective July 1, 2012, Seattle banned the use of plastic bags, prohibiting all retail stores from providing customers with single-use plastic shopping bags. San Francisco had already done the same in 2007, become the first city to ban plastic bags at large grocery stores in the country. As of October 2013, plastic bags will be history at all stores and restaurants as well.

Though potentially a good idea for the environment, a recent study questions whether it’s a good idea for our health. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and George Mason University noted that the San Francisco hospital was getting more patients coming in for emergency treatment of E. Coli infections in the three months after the ban went into effect. Furthermore, after checking state and federal data on emergency room admissions and food-borne illness deaths, they found a 46 percent rise in those deaths in San Francisco after the ban.

“Our results suggest that the San Francisco ban led to, conservatively, 5.4 annual additional deaths,” the authors wrote.

Despite Debate, the Results Raise a Red Flag

Some experts have criticized the study, claiming it was conducted with “sloppy” research and that it raised more questions than it answered. Critics state that the authors, Jonathan Klick and Joshua D. Wright, looked into emergency room admissions for illnesses related to food-borne illnesses before and for three months after San Francisco imposed its ban in 2007 (with no comparable uptick in other nearby counties), and attributed the increase in illnesses and deaths that they found to the plastic bag ban.

Tomás Aragón, an epidemiologist at U.C. Berkeley and health officer for the city of San Francisco, for example, stated that the evidence, though suggestive, don’t offer proof. In order to establish a clear link between the bag ban and the illness, one would have to show that the same people using the reusable bags were also the ones getting sick. He also noted in a memo that emergency-room data, such as that used by the study authors, can be very incomplete.

Aragón further notes that the increase in food-borne illnesses could have been due to a different disease that has seen increases since 2005 in the U.S.

The Point is to Wash Your Reusable Bags

Though more research needs to be completed before we can say for sure what effect reusable bags may be having on our health, one thing is clear—the bags can be contaminated with germs. This was shown in another study completed in 2010.

Researchers at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University found, after testing reusable bags for bacteria, that 51 percent of them had coliform bacteria, an indicator of pathogens, and 12 percent had the potentially deadly E. coli. Meanwhile, 97 percent of the shoppers admitted that they did not wash their bags regularly, and only 25 percent said they used separate bags for meat and vegetables.

So whether the San Francisco study provides solid proof of an increase in foodborne illnesses or not, it raises the question—when was the last time you washed your reusable bag?

Protecting Your Family Is Easy

Fortunately, it’s easy to make the changes that will protect your family’s health. As long as you take the following steps, you can continue to use your bag with confidence.

  • Wash the bag at least once a week in warm water, either by hand with soapy water and lemon juice or vinegar, or in the washing machine. Studies show that this simple step reduces bacteria by more than 99.9 percent.
  • Put your meat in a separate bag or bin. Pathogens are more likely to leak out into the bag from raw meat.
  • Put your produce in a separate bag or bin. Any pathogens in your bag can easily contaminate raw produce like lettuce, celery, and strawberries.
  • Let bags air out in an open, well-lit area after shopping before storing them.
  • Don’t use your reusable grocery shopping bags for other purposes, such as to carry books or gym clothes.
  • Avoid storing reusable bags in the trunk of the car, where high temperatures can encourage bacteria growth.

Do you regularly wash your reusable bag? Please share your tips.

* * *

Sources
Katherine Mangu-Ward, “Are Plastic Bag Bans Making Us Sick?” Reason.com, January 24, 2013, http://reason.com/blog/2013/01/24/are-plastic-bag-bans-making-us-sick.

Aaron Sankin, “Plastic Bag Ban Responsible for Spike in E.Coli Infections, Study Says,” Huffington Post, February 7, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/07/plastic-bag-ban_n_2641430.html?utm_hp_ref=green&ir=Green&utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter.

Ramesh Ponnuru, “When Going Green Makes People Sick,” The Week, February 22, 2013.

Drake Bennett, “Paper or Plastic (or Deadly Food-Borne Pathogens)?” Bloomberg, January 15, 2013, http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-01-15/paper-or-plastic-or-deadly-food-borne-pathogens.

Brad Plumer, “Are bans on plastic bags making people sick? Not so fast,” Washington Post, February 16, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/02/16/is-san-franciscos-ban-on-plastic-bags-making-people-sick-perhaps-not/.

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 15 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, web copy, newsletters, research-based projects and more.

Colleen is a self-described health nut, and understands from experience that “junk” foods and lack of sleep lead to fuzzy thinking, which isn’t helpful when facing project deadlines! She enjoys interviewing top scientific researchers, alternative medicine gurus, and cancer survivors from all over the nation who have overcome great challenges to find new purpose and vitality in life. In telling their stories and sharing their insights, she feels a sense of belonging in a wider community of individuals who seek to experience life in the most vibrant way possible.

Colleen’s fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” is forthcoming from Jupiter Gardens Press. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is scheduled for an August 2015 release with Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho. www.colleenmstory.com

27 COMMENTS ON THIS POST

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  1. Sandra frankel says:

    This was a very helpful article.
    I got some tips…which I hadn’t thought about such as not storing bags in the car, airing them out, and not
    using them for other items rather than food.

    thanks.

  2. Cirsten says:

    Hi Kevin,
    Give people a break. Is this a joke? It sounds like the research was paid by some producers of non reusable shopping bags. This is ridiculous!

    • Dana says:

      Ah, sorry Cirsten, but if you simply use your God-given commonsense, you would understand just why this is a legitimate concern. And this is not the first time this has been brought to the public’s attention. Dr. Oz also had a segment on this very thing a while back. It’s really a no-brainer if you ask me.

  3. Kevin Snyder says:

    Ok, I have to admit (sheepishly) that I have never washed my bags. But when I picked up my CSA share yesterday I did think about it, but only because the OUTSIDE looked dirty.
    I guess I know what I’m doing tonight…

  4. Joe says:

    Did meat ever come into the researchers equation?

    I saw a very interesting video on chicken as a major source of UTIs the other day. Perhaps it’s not even simply making sure to wash the bag – as this video points out there were some strains of E.coli that survived thorough washing!

    Hopefully all CAFO meat is off the menu anyway. Personally for me, meat of any kind is just not worth the risk these days.

    nutritionfacts.org/video/avoiding-chicken-to-avoid-bladder-infections/

  5. Kelley says:

    Interesting, though I would look more into factory farming as a cause for te increase for sure.

  6. More fear based conclusions and journalism. If people really understood health and disease they would realize that we don’t get sick from the outside, but from the inside. Western medicine keeps us in fear so that they can manipulate us. (btw, I am an MD). And besides, folks, if you give up eating meat, you don’t have to worry about contamination from pathogens.

    • Dana says:

      Rainbow Casey, I agree with you but I don’t see it as a “fear-based” tactic. The problem is most people’s immune systems in our society today (here in the US anyway) are greatly compromised BECAUSE they’re eating all the wrong foods. They are no longer eating REAL food, but food-like products laden with garbage / toxins that are making them fat, sick and/or killing them. Most people haven’t A CLUE as to how deep the deceit truly is regarding the FDA and big pharma (because they do go hand in hand). Pretty much all we’ve been conditioned to believe is a lie. And the key to real health does start from within—by creating an alkaline environment so that disease can’t thrive—by eating unprocessed, clean, whole, living, fresh, organic, foods. Most everything else, creates an acidic environment which primes one for disease (but I don’t have to tell you that).

      The problem is, the majority of the people don’t eat that way, they are CLUELESS to what real nutrition is. They have fallen into the trap of believing in these companies—believing in these products put out there for human consumption. They are over-eating and starving at the same time.

      All in all, this newsletter alerting the public can only help and does hold weight since there IS such a thing as cross contamination and bacteria buildup ESPECIALLY in the world that most of these people live in (from the foods they buy). But even a raw foodist or high raw person needs to be wise and use precautions.

  7. Janet says:

    My husband and I have been using reusable bags for three years. As a former Home Economic teacher who also taught foods and nutrition classes in college. I always have a plastic bag for any raw meat and all frozen foods go into an insulated bag with a cold pack. We use vegetable bags from the store for fruit and vegetables and either recycle them or use them to hold what we clean from the cat’s litter boxes. Fot extra bags for the litter box I purchase special biodegradable bags. It just takes good common sense. I also have washed the canvas bags when they get dirty. My grandparents went through the dust bowl in the Mid West and my parents through WW I and II. So I picked up habits on caring for the environment from them. I knit and crochet and use reusable bogs when I purchase my yarn. I made my own bags and usethem just for yarn.

  8. Zyxomma says:

    I wash my bags, particularly the canvas ones because they get dingy here in NYC. I also use separate bags for my produce and my roommate’s food, which includes meat, eggs, and such.

  9. Alan says:

    Dear Kevin Anna-Marie and son,
    I hope that you are all well or at the least coping, yes its very strange what happens to plastic, over the years i have had plastic bags storing things as you do, however over time they do deteriate, and this is certainly a shock to know that they can pass on germs and bacteria too what a threat to mankind the spreading of germs passed on by a simple plastic bag, i found your article thought-provoking and will certainly keep an eye out for the dirty ones, and wash them here in the UK.

  10. I use canvas bags for groceries and small hemp bags for produce these are very easy to wash.
    Those other bags are very toxic anyway they are made from pertrolem products and are not good
    for the environment any way. I don’t know why people think they are better then plastic.
    I don’t know why the health food stores even make and sell them!
    I’m happy with the cotton and hemp bags they last longer and hold a lot!!
    Thank you :-)

  11. Michele says:

    I think it depends on how often you shop as to how often you should wash the bags. If you go buy your veggies every other day than you should wash more than once a week in my opinion, and less if you say only buy groceries once a month, or once every two weeks. We wash ours after every use. We bring them in, unload them, rinse off the produce, put away our groceries, then gather the bags up, and put them in the washer. It’s a small load and i usually just let them hang to dry, unless it is monsoon season…at which point i have no choice but to use the dryer. When they wear out, i just make another one. I think this article is pretty good, but i think it should have been common sense to wash the bags. I am not trying to be mean saying that…in my mind i compare it to this question: Would you wear your clothes day after day, week after week, month after month and not wash them? It doesn’t bother me to get dirty, but i like to be clean, so i bathe, i wash clothes, etc., and i am sure others do the same. Maybe we all need to live our lives a little more like this quote, myself included:
    “If you take care of the small things,
    the big things take care of themselves.
    You can gain more control over your life by
    paying closer attention to the little things.”
    ~ Emily Dickinson, 1830 – 1886

  12. Cirsten says:

    We use far too much plastic. By doing so we for one use to many none renewable resources and two, we pollute the world we live in. Huge parts of our oceans, the size of countries are covered with plastic. Environmentalists have pretty much been talking about this for decades and finally people are beginning to listen. We start using reusable shopping bags. And now you chose to tell people that their shopping bags are dangerous? I could understand it if you would tell people to make sure to wrap their meat thoroughly before putting it down in their shopping bag, or if you would tell them not to put plants that have earth on them on top of unwrapped meat or not to mix unwrapped foods of any kind in a shopping bag. But that’s not what you do. Your headline screams: Reusable bags are dangerous! And I guess that at least a part of your good readers will decide that it’s not worth it. And that’s a shame. We need to put an end to the use of those plastic bags, the sooner the better. And this kind of scare tactics doesn’t help. And just for the records, I think it’s a good idea to wash your shopping bags now and then, but if you don’t use your head while you shop and while you put your things in your bags, and you mix all of them and let meat juice drip on your salad and let the earth from your salad fall on your meat and you mix a bit of your milk and your eggs into it, you will get sick, also if you carry your groceries home in a new plastic bag.

    • Liz says:

      Absolutely spot on, Cirsten. Jornalists and editors are trained to sesationalise everything in order to grab your attention – as if we were all children. And they admit, quite unashamedly, that if a story has no shock value, then it’s not worth running it. Sickening!!!

      Educate consumers to shop in the sensible ways you’ve suggested and don’t run stupid headlines like this.

      (Are tyou listening, Kevin?)

      Liz

  13. If you go to our website http://www.DoctorValerieNelson.com and click on the radio programs, we do one show on parasites. Spraying down fruits and veggies when they come into your house with peroxide is a very good idea to keep critters our of your life1

  14. R says:

    Thanks for sharing. I am a germaphobe lol… so I would never put fruit or veggies in a used bag no matter how clean I keep it without FIRST putting the fruit in a plastic bag or paperbag BEFORE I put it in the reusable bag… yeah I get it, it is not good to keep taking more bags but I would not put my fresh fruit in a used bag… ALSO the reason I put fruit or veggies in a plastic or small paper bag before I put it into the Re-usable bag is I would not have the cashier touching my fresh fruit with her hands after touching 1000’s of dollars of cash which has to be the dirtiest thing we could touch lol… ok I get it, yes the guys who put produce onto the produce tables their hands are dirty and the people who picked the fruit and put them in carts to deliver them to the stores have dirty hands worse than in the reusable bags etc etc…. so basically I eat fruit and veggies that I remove their outside peels like apples or pineapples, or bananas and then also sometimes I will buy prepackaged salads…. I know… paranoid but I’ve learned I have gotten sick from dirty produce. Good idea still to wash your re-usable bags but I have been give at least 25 + Re-usable bags so I should throw the old ones out and use the new re-usable bags lol…. but a good topic nevertheless. … Sincerely, still paranoid in Canada hehe.

    • Dana says:

      R. Exactly. And thanks for sharing good ol’ commonsense. It’s really as simple as that. And for anyone who believes that this is nothing but a “scare tactic”, well, I believe you’re simply over-complicating things. Sure, there are plenty of times when that IS the agenda, but here with this article? Sorry, I just don’t see that as being the case. It’s all about spreading awareness people.

      Great article Kevin and thanks for spreading the news.

      Live awesome (as you say). And I am. :)

  15. Velda says:

    Interesting article. Actually, I never thought about washing my reusable bags – and I use them all the time. They are always in my car (I don’t have a truck – so they are in the back in a box/bin). Thanks for the article, Kevin. You always provide such helpful information.

    • Velda says:

      I meant to say “I don’t have a trunk”. I have a van. I am still not worried about the bags. While I think we need to be clean with ourselves and our environment, we do not need to be fanatics. I agree that we get sick from the inside – not the outside. I believe it was Pasture that, later in his life, that it was not germs that are the problem but the environment. In other words, if we keep ourselves healthy, mostly germs will not be a problem. Our bodies can handle it. I have cloth bags. But, if something were to spill in them, like milk, or meat were to leak, I think it would be natural to wash them. Anyway, a great article, and good information, Kevin.

  16. Mary says:

    Sounds like an industry (plastic or paper bags) fueled article to me. I do wash my bags sometimes, but this is just another scare tactic article. As Kristen wrote, the real tragedies lie elsewhere and are very serious.

  17. Pam says:

    So maybe I am a little over the top, but doesn’t anybody thoroughly wash their produce when they get home BEFORE putting it in the refrigerator or bins? Isn’t that more important for your health than just clean grocery bags? I have been doing this since 1970’s, when I started canning and freezing produce -– probably because I was in the field or tree picking it. Especially in the trees, you have a good vantage point to see what goes on… Not to be gross, but not everyone picking the produce is cough-free, sniffle-free and healthy… Not to mention that the stuff grows outdoors where birds fly (plop) and insects/flies land. (I know they have little “feet”, but where have those feet been?) I agree that meat, fish, and poultry should have it’s own washable bag, separate from other groceries and produce, in case of leaks. (Butchers repackage all kinds of animal products and if one is contaminated…) It is better to be safe than sick. I save the plastic produce or bread bags, throw a few in with my grocery bags and put any possible leaky items in them; if they do leak, it does not get all over the other groceries and bag and the plastic recycled bread bag can be thrown away.

  18. MArtist says:

    Like your article, good info on reusable bags, I am assuming you are talking about the synthetic ones, in general use.

    How about the canvas or cloth-made bags? Do they carry the same rick factors of bacteria collection as the bamboo/synthetic mixed fiber bags?

    I know washing the synthetic materials tend to be a bit tricky as water wicks off some of them–perhaps due to more chemicals used in processing of bags. Chemical retardants are added to almost every yard of fabric produced in this country, why would ‘1BagAtATime’ be any different from another reusable bag company?

    Canvas washes well, but will shrink by 20 percent due to removal of the starch sizing, if put into the washer. Some shrinkage is overcome if the bag is blocked when wet, or ironed back into shape, and allowed to dry flat.
    It is my understanding cotton, in general, if kept clean (avoiding wet spills inside) will remain relatively germ-free if handled well, as your article suggests, by airing out, etc.

    Just wondering how thorough this investigation was in terms of materials tested. Also wondering if there could be any advantage of the use of cloth bags vs. synthetic bags for consumer use, especially when it comes to avoiding sicknesses due to mishandling of either bag.

    MArtist

  19. Karis says:

    Interesting article and since I am bad about never washing my bags, it is something to consider. My question is: I have always heard that if you put something in direct sunlight for at least 15 minutes, it will kill the germs. How true is this statement? Can the cloth bags be turned inside out and put in the sun to kill any germs? That would save me from having to wash them, if it was that easy.

  20. EthicRanger says:

    “Rainbow Casey says:
    June 14, 2013 at 3:27 pm
    And besides, folks, if you give up eating meat, you don’t have to worry about contamination from pathogens.”

    Totaly agree. bags researchers should look in to that first.

  21. Jo says:

    Wow who knew reusable bags were risky when we wanted to save the world?
    I have been looking for reusable cloth bags, or backpacks or purses with bikes on them,
    but seem hard to find. Anyone know of any? Perhaps Kev would like to start a new
    line of cloth bags? Just an idea Kev! Give someone a smile today!

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