Reusable Bags May be Hazardous to Your Health

By: Nicole Nichols : 6/30/2010 Daily Spark From Spark People

Living an eco-friendly lifestyle is just as much a part of me as living a healthy lifestyle is, and I often think that the two are very much related. While we may all feel differently about how our actions are affecting the planet, I think we can all agree that conserving resources and reducing waste are good steps for everyone. And many things that are good for the planet are great for your body, like walking or biking more, avoiding the harsh chemicals found foods or beauty products, or growing your own food.

One of the first changes many of us have made already was to purchase reusable grocery totes to limit single-use plastic and paper bags from the grocery store. Simple, easy, good for the planet—good all around, right? Well, a recent report found that these bags, while eco-friendly, might be bad for your health.

I love using my reusable bags. I even have bumper stickers on my car that say BYOB (bags, that is!), so I took note when I saw a news story linking reusable bags to public health risk.

Researchers from the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University tested the reusable grocery bags carried by shoppers in three major cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco and Tucson. They found E. coli in half the bags sampled, some at levels significant enough to cause health problems, even death. They also found that 97% of the shoppers interviewed had never washed or sanitized their totes, even though, according to co-author Charles Gerba, Ph.D., washing them would kill nearly all bacteria that accumulate in reusable bags.

I guess this doesn’t completely surprise me, but I admit that it’s something I’ve never really thought about before. While it’s definitely something to cause concern, I don’t think we need to swear off our use of these bags completely. In fact, researchers offered four tips in the article to reduce your risk of illness when using reusable bags.

  • Sanitize your bags after every use. While all bags are made of different materials, many are machine washable or could be disinfected with a sanitizing wipe, for example. I occasionally wash my own bags, but only the soft, cotton bags I own that easily go in and out of the washer. If you haven’t yet purchased reusable bags or plan to get more in the future, consider purchasing those that are easily washable.
  • Separate raw foods from other food products. This is to prevent cross contamination.
  • Do not use reusable food bags for other purposes. OK, I am totally guilty of this one. Not only do I use my bags for multiple purposes (carrying books to the library, toting my lunch to work, as a carryon at the airport), but I bring them when shopping anywhere I go, not just the grocery store. Going forward, I may just stick with my washable cotton bags for the grocery and the not-easy-to-wash bags for other purposes.
  • Do not leave reusable bags in your car. Researchers say that the high temperatures inside your car will only promote the growth of bacteria. Guilty here, too. I store my bags in the car most of the time so that I don’t forget to bring them back to the store.

Overall, I think this is a good reminder for all of us who tote these bags back and forth. I don’t know about you, but I’ll be adding my bags to the laundry this weekend!

Do you use reusable bags when grocery shopping? If so, do you usually sanitize them? Will this research affect your bag-toting habits?


2 thoughts on “Reusable Bags May be Hazardous to Your Health

  1. Wow, great stuff! I use mine for EVERYTHING…may just have to separate things like you! Even though I use them in the grocery store almost always, I still do ask for a plastic bag for meats…that may help against contamination.

    • Liza, thanks for the comment and suggestion! When grocery shopping, regardless of the shopping bag we use, one must always wrap their meat in a separate bag. Protecting the environment is important, but so is protecting one’s own health against E-Coli and other harmful pathogens.

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