Remember to Wash Your Reusable Grocery Bags

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Using cloth “green” grocery bags instead of plastic is one of the better things you can do for the environment. However, many people forget to do one important thing to protect their own health – to wash the bags regularly to eliminate bacteria that can cause illness.

Researchers at the University of Arizona tested the reusable grocery bags of 84 consumers in Tucson AZ, Los Angeles CA, and San Francisco CA. Fifty percent of the bags contained traces of E. coli and salmonella, bacteria that can cause food poisoning in humans.

The bacteria levels found in the bags were significant enough to cause serious health problems, even death. They are a particular danger to young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and anyone with a depressed immune system.

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They also found that consumers were mostly unaware of the need to regularly wash and sanitize bags. Previous research has found that as many as 97% of recyclable bag owners do not regularly wash or bleach their bags.

Study leader Professor Charles Gerba is pushing for an educational campaign among stores that sell reusable cloth bags to encourage shoppers to wash them regularly.

As with washing hands and cooking surfaces after handling or preparing raw foods, a reusable bag that carried food home from the store also needs to be cleaned and sanitized. Consumers should wash their bags weekly in hot, soapy water with bleach to kill bacteria. With regular hand- or machine-washing of these bags, the bacteria levels were reduced by 99.9%.

"These bags may be friendly to the environment, but not necessarily to you. Reusable grocery bags can be a breeding ground for dangerous food-borne bacteria and pose a serious risk to public health,” Gerba said.

The 15-page report, "Assessment of the Potential for Cross Contamination of Food Products by Reusable Shopping Bags," can be found at http://uanews.org. It offers various recommendations for lawmakers, including the suggestion to require printed instructions on reusable bags indicating they need to be cleaned or bleached between uses.

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