Are Reusable Shopping Bags Making Us Sick?

A new study claims that a plastic bag ban in San Francisco is responsible for an increase in foodborne illnesses.

Recent study links foodborne illness with reusable shopping bags.
A recent study that links foodborne illnesses with reusable shopping bags comes under fire. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

You try to do the right thing—you recycle your trash, you drive less, you proudly carry your reusable shopping bag like a badge of environmental honor. And then along comes a study that claims your reusable shopping bag might be a harbinger of deadly disease. But let’s not panic just yet.

The Huffington Post reports that researchers from the University of Pennsylvania released a study that found “reusable grocery bags can contain potentially harmful bacteria such as E. coli.” The study focused on San Francisco, a city that banned plastic bags beginning in late 2007. It claims that as a result of that ban, and a subsequent increase in the use of reusable bags, the city saw a dramatic spike in emergency room visits and deaths related to foodborne illnesses.

But those findings are already receiving criticism, most notably from Jennie R. Romer, Atlantic region director of the Clean Seas Coalition and founder of PlasticBagLaws.org. In a statement on her site, she calls the University of Pennsylvania’s findings “completely ridiculous and unfounded.”

According to Romer, UPenn’s conclusions are based upon an erroneous time period, one that actually precedes San Francisco’s ban on plastic shopping bags. Researchers used medical records that spanned from mid-to-late 2007—but the ban didn’t begin its first roll-out until November of that year. And even then, Romer reports that it only affected 50 supermarkets. San Francisco didn’t enforce the ban citywide until 2012.

In addition, the activist said, “no significant increase in reusable bag use in San Francisco was recorded during that time period—so this data would not be relevant in showing that reusable bags had anything to do with the increase [in foodborne illness.]”

What is accurate is that last year an outbreak of norovirus among an Oregon girls’ soccer team was found to be connected to a contaminated reusable shopping bag. But epidemiologists from the Oregon Public Health Division and the Oregon Health & Science University who traced the outbreak concluded the incident could have easily been prevented by simply washing the bag.

Health officials at FoodSafety.gov echo those same sentiments, reminding shoppers to regularly launder or wipe down their grocery bags.  Reusable bags are no different than other food-related accessories like cutting boards or utensils; they need to be washed consistently. Other methods of protection include keeping separate bags for meat and vegetables, and storing your reusable bags in your home, instead of in the trunk of your car.

Protecting our health should be our number one priority, but as of now, there’s little to suggest that we can’t also protect the environment while we do it.

Do you use reusable shopping bags? Let us know in the Comments.

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