New Health Risk: Reusable Grocery Bags Breed Bacteria

July 6th, 2010 - 10:29 pm ICT by Angela Kaye Mason  

July 6 (THAINDIAN NEWS) The environmentally friendly reusable grocery bags which have become so popular in recent years may not be too health friendly, since they can serve as a ripe breeding ground for dangerous food borne bacteria, that could cause a serious health risk to the public.

A study which was done by researchers at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University included shoppers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Tucson, by randomly testing their reusable shopping bags. The results were very disturbing.

“Our findings suggest a serious threat to public health, especially from coliform bacteria including E. coli, which were detected in half the bags sampled. Furthermore, consumers are alarmingly unaware of these risks and the critical need to sanitize their bags after every use.” stated Charles Gerba, Ph.D., who is a University of Arizona environmental microbiology professor and and co author who worked in this study. Where a toilet seat has around 50 coliform bacteria, some of the tested bags had anywhere from 500 to 1000.

Aside from the fact that the bacteria in these bags was found to be at significant enough levels that they could cause anything from illness to death, most people were not even aware that there was a danger. The study showed that 97 percent of the randomly chosen subjects had never washed their bags or used bleach on them.

These findings are of great importance in places such as California, where members of the state legislature through the Assemble Bill 1998 are trying to get plastic bags banned in the state. “If this is the direction California wants to go, our policymakers should be prepared to address the ramifications for public health,” stated another co author in the study, Ryan Sinclair, Ph.D., a professor at Loma Linda University’s School of Public Health.

The following recommendations have been issued by the report entitled “Assessment of the Potential for Cross Contamination of Food Products by Reusable Shopping Bags.”

  • States should consider requiring printed instructions on reusable bags indicating that they need to cleaned or bleached between uses;
  • State and local governments should invest in a public education campaign to alert the public about risk and prevention;
  • When using reusable bags, consumers should be careful to separate raw foods from other food products; cross-contamination problems arise when foods that people eat raw, such as apples and lettuce, are placed in a bag that has carried meat;
  • Consumers should not use reusable food bags for such other purposes as carrying books or gym clothes;
  • Consumers should not store reusable bags in the trunks of their cars because the higher temperature promotes growth of bacteria.

“As scientists, our focus was not on the relative merits of paper, plastic, or reusable grocery bags,” Gerba said. “Our intent was purely to provide relevant data to better inform consumers and lawmakers about the public health dimensions that could arise from increased use of reusable bags. With this knowledge, people will be in a better position to protect their health and that of their children.”

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