Are the bacteria living in reusable grocery bags making us sick? A new study finds that bans and restrictions on plastic grocery bags may be causing an uptick in emergency room visits and even deaths from foodborne bacteria such as E. coli.
The increasingly popular bag bans and taxes, which are usually justified on environmental grounds, incentivize shoppers to replace plastic with reusable canvas or nylon totes by forcing stores to charge for plastic or by imposing a per-bag tax or forbidding use of plastic bags altogether. In a November working paper, University of Pennsylvania law professor Jonathan Klick and George Mason University law professor Joshua D. Wright report that San Francisco, where plastic bags were banned, saw E.R. visits related to E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter, and toxoplasmosis increase by about one-fourth, with a similar increase in deaths compared with neighboring counties where the bags remained legal.
Shoppers haul leaky packages of pork, lunchmeat, and chicken salad in their reusable bags, then wad up the bags in a car trunk or kitchen cabinet, leaving bacteria to grow until the next trip, when they toss celery or other foods likely to be eaten raw in the same bags. Washing the bags after each use reduces the risk of disease transmission, but other studies have found that most people don't do that.
"We find that the San Francisco County ban is associated with a 46 percent increase in deaths from foodborne illnesses," write Klick and Wright. "This implies an increase of 5.5 annual deaths for the county." As bag bans creep across the nation, expect to see more deaths in the service of feel-good green legislation.