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.
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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/.