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How reusable shopping bags can kill

Published: Monday, Feb. 4 2013 11:08 a.m. MST

The quandary about using plastic or reusable shopping bags has a new wrinkle — reusable bags can make people sick if the bags are not kept clean. (This photograph is from Sept. 2011 and shows a family using the bags.)

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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As small plastic shopping bags face bans around the country in favor of reusable nylon or canvas bags, a new study shows an unanticipated downside: The reusable bags can kill you.

Wait a second: Aren't the bags supposed to save the environment, save money and make people feel better about themselves? How can a simple change in bags make people sick or even kill them?

An article by Katherine Mangu-Ward at Reason.com reports on the findings: "The study, by Jonathan Klick of University of Pennsylvania Law School and the Property and Environment Research Center and Joshua D. Wright of the George Mason University School of Law, found that jurisdictions where plastic bags were banned saw (hospital emergency room) visits increase by about one-fourth, with a similar increase in deaths compared with neighboring counties where the bags remained legal."

But how can this be?

Imagine people putting wet and dripping packages of ground beef or chicken in a reusable bag. The bags are left in a nice warm corner of the home or in a trunk where nasty bacteria can grow. Then, on the next trip, apples or carrots or other ready-to-eat foods meet and greet the pathogens. Yummy.

Of course, people can clean the bags and avoid the problems.

Right. But how many people do that?

"The issue, it seems, is that the vast majority of shoppers who reuse bags never clean them," says Drake Bennett at Bloomberg/Businessweek. "This is not a surprise; I don't either, any more than I clean the bag I take to work every day."

Bennett tells about an earlier survey conducted by University of Arizona and Loma Linda University: "Ninety-seven percent of the shoppers said they didn't wash their bags regularly. Only 25 percent said they used separate bags for meat and vegetables. When the biologists tested the bags, they found coliform bacteria — mostly harmless in themselves, but an indicator of pathogens — in 51 percent of the bags. They found E. coli — which is very far from harmless — in 12 percent of the bags."

Again, cleaning the bags took care of these problems.

So, also, would using those small plastic grocery bags.

But that brings us back to the problems they cause, as Plastics Today says: "The United Nations Environment Program estimates around 13,000 pieces of plastic litter are found in every square kilometer of sea. Plastic debris in the ocean is a potentially fatal concern for some mammals that can mistake it for food sources."

But even plastic bags can cause health risks if they come from a bad source. A Radio Iowa story says: "A recent screening of 125 various shopping bags in a dozen states, including Iowa, found three bags contained high concentrations of lead. Iowa D.N.R. Environmental Specialist Kathleen Hennings says — in past years — plastic bags found to be in noncompliance with laws associated with toxic metals in packaging were manufactured overseas."

Paper, anyone?

EMAIL: mdegroote@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @degroote

Facebook: facebook.com/madegroote

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