Are Reusable Shopping Bags Really a Hazard to Your Health?

Takepart.comOctober 29, 2013

Are reusable shopping bags killing people?

Seems we can expect more sensational headlines like that just as we finally seem to be making some small but respectable headway in turning the tide on humanity’s addiction to cheap, ubiquitous, 1,000-years-in-a-landfill plastic bags.

To wit, this attention-grabber over at the Daily Mail: “How Your Bag-for-Life Could POISON You.”

To justify the use of terror-inducing ALL CAPS in the headline, the lead of the piece resorts to one of the oldest journalism tricks in the book, citing an army of “experts” who are raising the alarm that forgoing plastic grocery bags in favor of more environmentally friendly reusable ones could land your eco-conscious ass in the hospital with a nasty case of food poisoning.

Except as you read further, it seems this hand-wringing legion of “experts” pretty much boils down to just one—a rather dour-looking old chap with a mane of white hair and eyebrows like a particularly angry Halloween pumpkin.

Hugh Pennington is emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, and he’s turned his piercing, scolding glare on those of us who he seems to think are clearly playing a game of microbial Russian roulette every time we toss a package of boneless chicken breasts into our reusable totes.

Or does he really think that? The Daily Mail piece would lead you to believe so, yet Pennington’s advice is pretty commonsense, even if it’s a bit arguable. He admonishes that you should never haul raw meat (or produce that still has soil on it) in reusable bags, because those items could be contaminated with virulent bugs like E. coli. He takes no issue with reusing bags for everything from canned soup to boxed cereal.

The arguable part comes from the fact that Pennington claims any bag used to haul raw meat should be disposed of, asserting “You can’t get the bugs out by just washing them—it will get rid of some bacteria, but not all of them.” That may be true from an academic point of view, where we’re talking infinitesimals, but really?? I mean, your cutting board comes into contact with raw meat all the time, yet a good wash seems to suffice there—no one’s suggesting tossing your cutting board in the trash every time you skin a salmon fillet. And in fact, a study out of the University of Arizona found washing reusable bags eliminated 99.9 percent of any pathogens present.

Whether Pennington is or is not some old crank with a rather prudish Puritanical disdain for hippy-chic hemp bags, I imagine we can expect to hear even more from plastic partisans rehashing the old shibboleth that “plastic is cleaner,” especially now that environmental advocates (and, really, anyone who’s tired of feeling the clammy wrap of sodden polyethylene around your ankles whenever you wade into the ocean) have made some progress in beating back the tide of plastic bags that threatens to overtake us all.

Even as cities such as San Francisco have banned plastic bags outright (amid much controversy), we’ve already started to see purported “studies” that suggest reusable bags are a public health menace. The most widely reported of these was a collaboration in August 2012 between a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a economics professor at George Mason University, which garnered headlines with its finding that deaths from food-borne illness increased 46 percent in San Francisco in the three months after the plastic-bag ban went into effect.

Given that neither professor was an expert in epidemiology, it should come as no surprise that their conclusions were widely disputed.

For one, that “46 percent” increase equates to about five additional deaths—horrible, to be sure, and statistically significant. But it’s an increase that could also be explained by the fact that what constitutes food-borne illness (and even how it’s diagnosed and reported in hospitals) is subject to wide interpretation.

Second, as a bona fide epidemiologist from UC Berkeley pointed out, the study failed to analyze whether people who got sick were, in fact, also using reusable bags—oops.

All studies aside, my boyfriend and I have been using our super handy Chico Bags for about six years now (after we finally exhausted ourselves trying to stuff yet another mass of plastic bags into the ever-expanding monster blob of “saved” bags inside a kitchen drawer). No, they’ve never made us sick—but yes, writing this did remind me that it was (far past) time to throw them in the wash.

Related stories on TakePart:

Paper, Plastic, or Guilt? The Grocery Bag Fee Hits Hard

Op-Ed: Plastic Bag Bans Work to Curb Pollution

California Takes Cue From India in Plastic Bag Ban

Can Sex Toys, Guns, and Grenades Deter Plastic Bag Use?

Original article from TakePart