This has got my goat. I recently read about a study finding E. coli bacteria in reusable bags. Bacteria levels found in reusable bags were found to be significant enough to cause a wide range of serious health problems and even death. Oh my … my reusable bag could KILL ME!!
This has prompted a lot of media attention and a lot of fear. Something about it didn’t sit right with me, so I did a little investigating. The most interesting piece of the puzzle is that this “study” was funded by … drum roll please … the American Chemistry Council! For those of you not familiar with the ACC, they are the lobbying group—which includes industry giants the likes of Exxon, BP, and Monsanto—that look out for the interests of plastics and chemicals. Aha moment number one.
Seemingly not a coincidence, all of this hit the press just as California is considering AB 1998, which would ban plastic bags and place a $.05 fee on paper bags which would be required to contain a minimum of 40% post-consumer recycled content. A quick little history brief: plastic bags cannot have a fee placed on them in California, which is why San Francisco banned them, because pro-plastic lobbies quietly pushed through a law a few years ago that prohibited charging fees on plastic bags anywhere in the state of California. So, is it a coincidence that this study is coming out right now?
What were the findings of this industry-funded study? The samples tested included 84 actual consumer reusable bags (25 in Los Angeles, 25 in San Francisco, 34 in Tucson). According to the results, about 50% of the bags studied had some sort of coliform bacteria. The evil E coli was found in 7 out of the 84 bags. Washing out your bag removed over 99% of any bacteria. That sounds pretty logical to me. Maybe instead of spending money to create fear, the ACC should spend a little money in an education campaign to help consumers understand the need to wash out their bags.
All but four of the bags in the study were made of woven polypropylene. The results I read did not list what the four other bags were made of. I personally do not use woven polypropylene bags, of which most of the bargain $.99 bags are made. Those bags are yet again made of petroleum and are usually made in China. Not sure where canvas bags fit in, or bags made of other materials. It seems they weren’t tested.
With a little digging I found another report that said that E. coli can be found in 50% of our kitchens, especially on counter tops. What next? Should we stop using our counter tops because they harbor bacteria? I think the take home message here is that we indeed need to wash our bags out now and then, especially if you have carried any meat, fish or poultry. And we also need to consider the source of any studies, especially when what they are suggesting—that reusable bags are dangerous and could kill you—seems a bit ludicrous.
Here are a few articles and links to find out more:
U. ARIZONA (US)—They’re good for the environment, but reusable grocery bags can be a breeding ground for dangerous food-borne bacteria and pose a serious risk to public health, according to a new report.
Researchers randomly tested bags carried by shoppers in Tucson, Los Angeles, and San Francisco and found bacteria levels significant enough to cause a wide range of serious health problems and even death. Read more …
Here is another article that is interesting questioning the validity of the report:
Reusable Bag E. Coli Scare: Industry Exaggeration?
By Smith School of Business | June 26th, 2010
By David Abraham
This month, researchers at the University of Arizona released a study (PDF) showing that reusable grocery bags might be contaminated with E. Coli and other harmful bacteria. They conclude that bags must be washed frequently to avoid cross contamination with other items. Sounds like a problem.