Do reusable, cloth shopping bags pose a significant health risk for you and your family? Probably not, but reusable bags are growing increasingly popular as eco-friendly options to paper and plastic bags, and recent media attention is right in pointing out that most people may not be using them properly.
A recent study by the University of Arizona, Tucson, and Loma Linda University in California reported that reusable grocery bags they tested posed "a serious threat to public health," with detectable levels of several different bacteria. That study has drawn harsh criticism from consumer advocates as well as health experts because it was funded by a plastic industry trade group and because of the low number of bags they actually tested.
Nonetheless, the findings of a related survey of consumers suggested that we aren't using the bags as carefully as we should. For example, only three percent of consumers interviewed had ever washed their reusable shopping bags, and nearly all respondents reported using the same bag for multiple purposes. Reusable bags include polypropylene, canvas or cotton bags, insulated bags, reusable totes and coolers, even lunch bags and boxes.
Here are a few tips for the safe use of reusable shopping bags:
- Do not use the same bag for food and non-food items, such as books or gym clothes.
- Always put the same type of product in the same bag. For instance, you may set aside a few bags for meats, another set for fresh produce and yet another set for packaged food and non-grocery items. Getting different colored bags is a great way to accomplish this.
- Consider carrying meat, fish or poultry only in disposable plastic or paper bags, reserving the reusable bags only for items less likely to spread bacteria.
- Hand or machine wash bags after each use. If the material will support it, spray with a diluted bleach mixture or surface disinfectant spray and let dry.
- Do not store reusable bags in your car. The higher internal temperatures of your vehicle can promote the growth of bacteria.
- Replace your bags every few months, not only to minimize contamination risk, but also because they can weaken over time from repeated use and washing.
- Do not place reusable bags on surfaces used to prepare or eat food, such as countertops and tables. Remember, they've likely been on the grocery store floor, in a shopping cart, on the floorboard of your car and several other surfaces and could have picked up dirt or bacteria.
- Wash produce carried in a reusable bag thoroughly before eating or preparing it. Cook meats carried in reusable bag thoroughly before serving.
Remember that a little bit of anything you put in the bag stays in the bag and can contaminate things you put in it later. And, you bring a little bit of everywhere the bags have been home with you each time you bring them in the house.
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