U. ARIZONA (US)—They’re good for the environment, but reusable grocery bags can be a breeding ground for dangerous food-borne bacteria and pose a serious risk to public health, according to a new report.

Researchers randomly tested bags carried by shoppers in Tucson, Los Angeles, and San Francisco and found bacteria levels significant enough to cause a wide range of serious health problems and even death.

They are a particular danger for young children, who are especially vulnerable to food-borne illnesses, says Charles Gerba, a University of Arizona professor and coauthor of the study.

The study also found consumers were almost completely unaware of the need to regularly wash their bags.

“Our findings suggest a serious threat to public health, especially from coliform bacteria including E. coli, which were detected in half of the bags sampled,” says Gerba. “Furthermore, consumers are alarmingly unaware of these risks and the critical need to sanitize their bags on a weekly basis.”

A full 97 percent of those interviewed never washed or bleached their reusable bags, adds Gerba, noting that thorough washing kills nearly all bacteria that accumulate in reusable bags. Most of the bags tested were made of woven polypropylene. New reusable bags and plastic bags were tested; none contained any contamination.

The report comes at a time when some members of the California Legislature, through Assembly Bill 1998, are seeking to promote increased consumer use of reusable bags by banning plastic bags from California stores.

“If this is the direction California wants to go, our policymakers should be prepared to address the ramifications for public health,” says coauthor Ryan Sinclair, a professor at Loma Linda University’s School of Public Health.

The report noted that “a sudden or significant increase in use of reusable bags without a major public education campaign on how to reduce cross contamination would create the risk of significant adverse public health impact.”

Geographic factors also play a role, says Sinclair, who noted that contamination rates appeared to be higher in Los Angeles than in the two other locations—a phenomenon likely due to that region’s weather being more conducive to growth of bacteria in reusable bags.

The report offered the following policy recommendations for lawmakers, as well as tips for consumers who use reusable grocery bags:

  • States should consider requiring printed instructions on reusable bags indicating they need to cleaned or bleached between uses.
  • State and local governments should invest in a public education campaign to alert the public about risk and prevention.
  • When using reusable bags, consumers should be careful to separate raw foods from other food products.
  • Consumers should not use reusable food bags for other purposes such as carrying books or gym clothes.
  • Consumers should not store meat or produce in the trunks of their cars because the higher temperature promotes growth of bacteria, which can contaminate reusable bags.

“As scientists, our focus was not on the relative merits of paper, plastic, or reusable grocery bags,” Gerba says. “Our intent was purely to provide relevant data to better inform consumers and lawmakers about the public health dimensions that could arise from increased use of reusable bags. With this knowledge, people will be in a better position to protect their health and that of their children.”

The American Chemistry Council underwrote the research project, which was conducted independently of the organization.

More news from the University of Arizona: http://uanews.org/