According to the San Jose Mercury News, on September 22, 2009 the City of San Jose decided to adopt a plan to ban plastic and paper bag use by retailers and others. This seems like the right thing to do. It seems right for the environment. It seems right for the consumers. It seems right for the wildlife. But what if it’s not right? What if the much-worshipped reusable bags are not safe for us?
The medical community and the media are forever fickle: the thing that is good for you today is bad the next day and vice versa. Look at the recent controversy and public scare over water bottles. About a year ago, an article in The Journal of the American Medical Association alerted everyone to the health risks associated with Bisphenol A (BPA). BPA is commonly found in plastic water bottles and has been found to increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Instead of plastic, the public was urged to switch to aluminum bottles. In a strange twist, it has just come to light in an article written by Michael Hill that some aluminum bottles made by Sigg, one of the leading brands in the market, actually contain BPA.
Every study and article out there seems to contradict another. What if a study shows that reusable bags are not good for the earth? What if they are not good for our health?
Well, that is what a Canadian study profiled in the National Post asked. The study “found that 64% of the reusable bags tested were contaminated with some level of bacteria.” Forty-percent of the bags actually had fecal matter present. The study concluded that when we fold up and put away our reusable bags there is a breeding frenzy of bacteria going on.
When people go to the grocery store, they don’t just buy canned foods and toilet paper. People mostly buy produce and meats. Grocery store meat packaging is notorious for leaking and the meat juices-containing salmonella and other bacteria-will soak into your reusable bags. Don’t forget any stray grapes or pieces of parsley that make it to the bottom of your bag. These may stay there until your next shopping trip and begin to grow mold.
If you are stuck in a city that has or will make reusable bags the only game in town, you must consider how to keep it safe. There are a couple ways to get minimize these risks: wash the bags or keep separate bags for produce and the different types of meats.
Washing the bags seems pretty simple and may indeed work for some people. I recommend washing the totes according to manufacturer specifications. Unfortunately, not all reusable bags can be washed. I have some reusable bags from Trader Joes that are made from recycled plastic bottles. There is nothing on them that indicated how or if you should launder them. It’s not just Trader Joes: according to the Target website, their cheapest reusable bags can on be spot treated. That won’t work when the chicken package explodes all over the bag. I suggest checking bags for cleaning instructions and buy only those that allow for laundering, such as these from ECOBAGS.
If you are really organized, then you could try keeping separate bags for produce, chicken, beef, pork and fish. This will help with cross-contamination but not with recontamination. That rare pack of drumsticks that is properly sealed will now have last week’s chicken juice all over the outside of the package. This risk is still probably slight, so this system could work if you are consistent.
Reusable bags are great, but they should not be forced on the population. Before we dump paper and plastic for good we need to do some more research on the cloth alternative. In the meantime, preventative care and maintenance will minimize any health risks reusable bags might have.
Associated Press, “San Jose Votes To Ban Paper. Plastic Shopping Bags,” San Jose Mercury News, September 23, 2009
Chicago, Billy, “What is BPA,” Associated Content, December 10, 2008
“ECOBAGS Canvas Tote Bag,” ECOBAGS
Hawthorne, Karen, “Back to Plastic? Reusable Grocery Bags May Cause Food Poisoning,” National Post, May 20, 2009
Hill, Michael, “Anger Uncorked At Bottle Maker Sigg Over BPA,” Associated Press, September 3, 2009
Lang, Iain A., PhD, “Association of Urinary Bisphenol A Concentration With Medical Disorders and Laboratory Abnormalities in Adults,” The Journal of the American Medical Association, September 16, 2008.
“Standard Reusable Shopping Bag,” Target.com