The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
May 11, 2012

Don’t Be Fooled by Reusable Bag Norovirus Scare

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:

Norovirus in reusable bags -- and LA still wants bag ban  It's official: Oregon scientists have concluded that an outbreak of the dangerous norovirus was traced back to a reusable bag.  Members of a girls' soccer team -- 13- and 14-year-olds -- became mysteriously sick at a tournament back in 2010. And scientists now know why: people were eating cookies from a reusable bag contaminated with the same virus that annually causes nearly 21 million illnesses nationwide.  And even in the face of all this, Los Angeles is still considering banning plastic and paper bags -- forcing Californians to carry their groceries in the very same kind of bags that got the girls sick.  Send a letter to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa today. Tell him that a bag ban is the wrong choice for LA.  Plastic bags aren't just the sanitary alternative, they're the environmentally friendly alternative too. They're 100% recyclable (many reusable bags aren't); they're also used every day in dozens of ways. Plastic bags can be used for trash can liners, for pet waste, for storage around the home -- and then recycled into items like park benches and playground equipment.  Contact Mayor Villaraigosa today. Tell him that there's a clean, recyclable alternative to germy reusable bags -- but there won't be for long if he doesn't stop the bag ban.  	 Bag the Ban is brought to you by the people of Hilex Poly, a global leader in plastic bag recycling and manufacturing. ©2012, Hilex Poly Unsubscribe

Hilex Poly uses bogus scare tactics to discredit reusable bags

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!

30 comments
Margaret
Margaret

I looking for articles that use the bag manufacturers' arguments, and found a list of ways to reuse disposable bags on Hilex Poly's site - one suggestion: "Carry your lunch"! Cause that completely meshes with their health risk argument.

judithcruzan
judithcruzan

I use European Mesh bags or as my husband calls them "Perhaps Bags", I got mine at Reuseit.com.  They come individually or in sets of 5. They are washable and then you just hang them to dry. They can hold up to 45lbs each and make great gifts. 

KATIA EMI
KATIA EMI

I´m from Sao Paulo, Brasil, and this year (just this year!!) a battle between prefecture and consumer protection agency started because of the plastic bags ban. 

The battle is: consumer protection says the markets have the obligation in providing a way to accomodate the purchase so the customer can go home...and prefecture banned due to environmental issues or any other reason that´s not out in the open.

The thing is prefecture hasn´t given society a chance to figure out a way of replacing the plastic bags in our daily life...no educational program, no anything. 

What I think is: if you want to ban it, do it properly by educating people. Both protecion agency and prefecture.

Anyhow, the battle isn´t over...and apparently, with this news in Oregon, more serious issues will come along than consumer rights or political interests...and I´m turning on my washing machine to clean my reusable bags!!!

 

 

 

RobJohnson1
RobJohnson1

from the article "made out of laminated woven polypropylene" Isn't polyprorpylene.

Isn't that a plastic? I am sure I have some of these bags. And they Can be washed just like my favorite canvass bags. My point is,,,,Hilex poly seems to be saying their poly is better than brand X poly. Which I say is hogwash, Go canvass!

Sven
Sven

Good investigation! But I still do not agree that the plastic bag ban is a good idea. I personally use plastic grocery bags for many uses other than carrying groceries that reusable bags would not be able to accomplish. And shouldn't it be a personal choice? This is America. Don't change people's laws, change people's minds. Convince us to go reusable, don't force us.

Jennifer
Jennifer

We've been saying this for years--and it makes us so mad that these stories keep making headlines. This just as easily could have happened with plastic bags. And don't get us started about why food was being kept in the bathroom. So gross.

 

We can't share this link enough. It's great info about the best way to wash different reusable bags: http://www.bulletinbag.com/faqs/washing-reusable-bags.html

Planet trash
Planet trash

Me? I want a disposable husband - mine keeps coming home covered in filth but still I have to reuse him over and over again. Last year I caught a cold from him!!!!! Maybe Hilex Poly can make me one for each day of the week.

surfie999
surfie999

As you are saying, a dash of common sense is needed......a fundemental part of any infection control is hygiene = wash your hands and wash your bags, clothes etc.  Duh! Duh!

 

Several Australian states have moved to banning plstic bags, the thin types.  It is not a big deal.........BUT purchase of similar tpyes has gone up, mainly for their use as domestic bin liners.

Surfie999@gmail.com

 

Kate
Kate

"Next thing you know, companies will be touting disposable underwear because cloth undies can carry germs." I actually read a sci-fi novel published in the 1970s and set sometime in the 21st century where the protagonist mentioned that she'd always worn disposable underwear just like everyone else did. Glad that particular prediction hasn't come true! (Yet.) There is a scientist I read about recently who recommends washing underwear in its own load to keep fecal germs away from your other clothes. I'm a bit of a germaphobe but I don't feel compelled to do that; however I have started adding tea tree oil to all off my laundry. And I throw my reuable bags in with sheet and towel washes when I remember.

Denyse Semann Couture
Denyse Semann Couture

People really NEED a Warning Label to inform them that plastic bags aren't toys? Seriously?

EcoCatLady
EcoCatLady

Thank you so much for this post Beth. Every time I hear some bogus story about reusable bags being "dangerous" I think about a study that I read about nearly 10 years ago where some scientists tested everyday items and discovered incredible amounts of e coli and other nasty things were present on computer keyboards, telephones, ladies purses... and the amounts of the pathogens on the "everyday" items FAR exceeded the amounts present on public bathroom toilet seats (presumably because the toilets were cleaned and disinfected regularly.) 

 

People really just need to use some common sense. Either that or we need to start banning purses!

Susan Stewart
Susan Stewart

So, when i was a kid, my job was to fold up and stack the paper bags after grocery shopping. Then they switched to plastic. My job then became 1) Save plastic bags that can be reused, and throw away the ones with meat juices in them, so we don't accidentally reuse those, and 2) keep the bags AWAY from my baby sister. One day i missed one, and found my sis in her playpen with a bag up to her face. She was fine, we got the bag away from her. This was before those warning labels were put on them. Disposable plastic bags are not safe for people or the environment, period.

Candace Candy-Lynn
Candace Candy-Lynn

if they claim to reuse plastic bags, then the same thing would have happened!

Ellen S. Gordon
Ellen S. Gordon

This is just such a low-life tactic for them to take, to try to use this to their benefit. As if you wouldn't get sick from ANYTHING that was in a bathroom for 6 hours with someone puking near it!

Ewa
Ewa

The cause of the sickness was the virus passed on the packaging of the snack. Talk of the Nation Science Friday just today, had a program with a scientist who traced how that virus spread. 

BethTerry
BethTerry moderator

Hey Sven, the problem is that in California, there is a law prohibiting cities and counties from charging fees for plastic bags, which is really an effective way to handle the problem.  It gives people a choice but also "helps them remember" their reusable bags.  That is why California cities are going for full-on bans.  We have to solve this problem, and we're not going to get there simply through education.  The recycling rate of plastic bags is only about 3%, and every day I leave the house and see plastic bags blowing down the street.  And as for this being American and personal freedom, I feel like personal freedom ends where our environment begins because the environment affects us all.  I don't have the freedom to pee in your yard just because I feel like it.  Our air and water belong to all of us, and so people's personal actions affect us all.  You know?

BethTerry
BethTerry moderator

Okay, I'm listening to the story now, and it sounds exactly like what I described.  The sick girl spread the virus to the reusable bag that was in the bathroom.  The researcher isn't really saying anything about the virus being on the food packaging, just the bag.

BethTerry
BethTerry moderator

Wait, seriously?  The plot thickens.  I need to listen to that.  Because if that's the case, all this BS from the plastics industry about plastic packaging keeps us safe is also a bunch of baloney.

Bornagaingreen
Bornagaingreen

 @BethTerry Exactly. We are so blessed in this country to have numerous freedoms that are unattainable to others around the world, but if a certain freedom of ours is consequently harming all of us-- not just the animals and land, but our children/families-- then it becomes difficult to justify it as an individual freedom. 

hthree
hthree

 @BethTerry  YEP.    Excellent comments and story.  Thanks for sharing both sides of this story.    Let common sense prevail and detach from the hysterical dramas out there!!