It’s been all over the news for the past two days: Six Oregon girls, travelling to an out of town soccer tournament in Seattle, all got sick with norovirus after passing around cookies in a reusable bag. Scientists from the Oregon Public Health department did some sleuthing and traced the virus to the reusable bag. (Read the full story on OregonLive.com.) So, does that mean that reusable bags are dangerous? The disposable bag industry would like you to think so. Hilex Poly, the plastic bag manufacturer that mislead consumers about plastic bag recycling rates in December, sent out this gem to its subscribers yesterday:
Hilex Poly wants you to believe that reusable bags are dangerous because they can carry viruses. But let’s look at the actual facts of the case before jumping to that conclusion.
1) The first girl who came down with norovirus had not touched the reusable bag when she got sick. In fact, no one knows how she contracted the virus. But after getting sick, she spent 6 hours in her chaperon’s bathroom having diarrhea and throwing up. Her chaperon then drove her back home to Oregon.
2) The reusable bag happened to be in the chaperone’s bathroom while the girl was in there being sick.
3) On Monday, another girl saw the bag in the bathroom and brought it to lunch filled with store-bought cookies that had never been opened.
4) The girls passed the bag around, and all of them got sick.
To me, several things are clear from the facts of the case:
1) The reusable bag full of cookies was not contaminated until it spent 6 hours in a bathroom with a sick puking girl. I would imagine that most of the objects in that bathroom were contaminated at that point.
2) If a disposable plastic bag had been in that bathroom, it probably would have been contaminated too. Hilex Poly’s conclusion that disposable plastic bags are safer than reusable bags is unfounded. As Stiv Wilson from 5 Gyres pointed out in an email, both kinds of bags are made of plastic. The reusable bag the girls passed around was made from polypropylene, so it’s not like we’re comparing plastic and some other natural material here.
My conclusion is that this story really has nothing to do with disposable vs. reusable bags. The study simply proves that norovirus can be passed via inanimate objects, and in this case, the object just happened to be a reusable bag, but it could have been a disposable bag, or a door knob, or a keyboard. To quote the article:
That confirmation marked a breakthrough: Scientists have long known that this hardy virus is transmitted from person to person but never before have they been able to prove that transmission from an inanimate object caused an outbreak.
‘In other outbreaks, we have been able to isolate the virus from door handles or keyboards, but we have never been able to show it was the keyboard or door handle that made people sick,’ said Kimberly Repp, epidemiologist with the Washington County Department of Health and Human Services.
What’s more, asked whether she would advise against reusable bags,
Repp does not recommend that consumers ditch reusable grocery bags. But she says they should be cleaned with sanitizing wipes or in the washing machine after traveling to a store.
‘You wash your clothes after you wear them,’ she said. ‘Wash your bag after you use it.’
And perhaps more to this particular point, as Alice Park from TIME concludes, keep your grocery bags and food out of your bathroom. Duh.
A Few More Reusable Bag Safety Tips
Whether your reusable bag is made from plastic, cotton, hemp, or any other material, you should wash it regularly. And that goes for reusing disposable plastic bags too. The plastic bag industry likes to insist that disposable plastic bags can be reused. If that’s the case, then they should be washed too. The point is not that reusable bags are somehow more prone to breeding microbes but that all objects can pick up germs from being used over and over again.
Next thing you know, companies will be touting disposable underwear because cloth undies can carry germs.
It doesn’t take much effort to wash reusable bags. Hand or machine washing can reduce the number of bacteria in reusable bags by >99.9%, according to a 2010 study of bacteria in reusable bags.
Keep meat and fish separate from produce and other foods. As many of you know, we buy meat for our cats in a big stainless steel pot. What you may not know is that we have designated one particular reusable bag to carry the pot. We don’t ever use that bag for other kinds of groceries.
Tell Mayor Villaraigosa the truth!
Hilex Poly is urging its supporters to write to LA’s Mayor Villaraigosa to oppose the proposed plastic bag ban. That means that WE need to explain why these scare tactics will not work and why reusable bags are not a public health threat. Environment California has a form letter on its site that is easy to fill out. Whether you are an L.A. resident or not, please take a minute to use the form to explain the plastic bag industry’s misleading tactics and urge the mayor to support the plastic bag ban.
Have a great weekend!