You may have seen the recent news reports about a new study that found high levels of bacteria in reusable grocery bags.  After reading that study, and another conducted in Toronto in 2009 (see news reports of the Toronto Study here), I have written a letter to our Health Department.  In it, I ask them to review this matter and report back to the public on the safety of these bags.

The studies found unsafe levels of bacteria in a high percentage of the bags.  Some even had E. coli.   Yeast and mold were also present in the bags.   Washing helps eliminate the problem if done on a regular basis.  However, infrequent cleaning, improper packing of bags (mixing meat and produce), improper drying of the bags, improper storage (in a hot humid car) and the mixed use nature of the bags (used to carry groceries today and gym clothes tomorrow) all add up to create an environment where you are likely to have very icky bags that could be making you and your family sick.

While the Basnight Bag Ban does not mandate the use of re-usable bags, the law is intended to encourage their use.  As such, the Dare County Health Department has an obligation to research this matter and advise the public of its findings.  If these bags pose a health risk, they should not be brought into our grocery stores.  A copy of my letter is below.  I am also sending this letter to our Commissioners and to our newspapers.  I encourage anyone who is concerned about this topic to do the same.

The recent plastic bag ban has brought about an increased use of reusable bags.  Recent studies have shown that reusable bags harbor high levels of harmful bacteria which may pose a health hazard.  I urge the Dare County Health Department to research this matter and inform the public of any potential health hazards associated with the use of these bags.

One study, done in California and Arizona and completed in June of 2010, found that more than 50% of tested reusable bags contained coliform bacteria.  In 12% of cases, the coliform bacteria was E. coli.  The presence of coliform was more pronounced in California, most likely due to the higher humidity in that state.  The study found that most users store their bags in their car in between uses.  This hot humid environment provides a breeding ground for bacteria. There are many additional findings in this study that are disturbing such as the fact that many people use their bags not only for transporting groceries but also for transporting their gym clothes.

The study did also find that washing the bags reduced the bacterial levels in 99% of cases.  However, 97% of reusable bag users never washed their bags.

Another study conducted in Toronto in 2009 found that 30% of the bags had levels of bacteria that were considered unsafe for drinking water.  It also found yeast or mold in 37.5% of reusable bags.  This study further elaborated on issues such as the handling of the bags by store personnel and the potential health hazards of improperly washing the bags.

A copy of the above referenced studies and other relevant news articles are included with this letter.

In light of the new law banning the use of plastic bags and studies such as the ones above, I am greatly concerned about the health hazards that reusable bags pose in Dare County.  These contaminated bags are brought into our stores and placed in the same carts as our fresh meat, fish and produce.  These contaminated bags are handled by the store personnel who also handle fresh food items.  With no verification system in place to ensure that these bags are bacteria free, we are promoting an environment that may be hazardous to the health of the workers, citizens and visitors of Dare County.  We close our beaches when E. coli  is present because it is a health hazard.  It would be important to know if the same bacteria is present in our grocery bags.

I urge the Dare County Health Department to immediately undertake a study of this matter.  If it is found that these bags pose a health hazard, I urge our community and government leaders to mount a campaign to prevent their use in our grocery stores.

Personally, I use the reusable bags on occasion (when I remember to bring them in the store) and I have washed them, though not often (twice since the ban went into effect last year).  I store them in my car which gets really hot.   I am not careful to watch the store personnel to ensure that meats are not placed in the same bag as produce.  As a result, I am concerned about the hazard my bags pose to me and my family.  So I’m going to discontinue using them rather than to wash them after every use and store them in my house, where I will inevitably leave them when I go to the market.

I’m going to pick up a box of plastic bags at Staples (500 for $20) and keep them in my car so that I can have my groceries packed in them.