SAN FRANCISCO, CA. – The ban on plastic grocery bags enacted in San Francisco and several other California communities has an unexpected side effect â€” an increase in food-borne illnesses, emergency room visits, and even deaths.
The culprit: the reusable grocery bags that shoppers use instead, which are breeding grounds for E. coli and other harmful bacteria, according to a new report by university researchers.
San Francisco County enacted a ban on non-compostable plastic bags at large grocery stores and drug stores in 2007, and extended it to all retail establishments in early 2012. Los Angeles followed suit in 2012, as did several other California communities including Malibu and Palo Alto.
The bans were designed to reduce litter and threats to marine life posed by discarded bags, and encourage the use of reusable grocery bags.
But studies â€œsuggest that reusable grocery bags harbor harmful bacteria, the most important of which is E. coli,â€ say Jonathan Klick, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, and Joshua D. Wright, a professor at the George Mason University School of Law and Department of Economics.
â€œIf individuals fail to clean their reusable bags, these bacteria may lead to contamination of the food transported in the bags. Such contamination has the potential to lead to health problems and even death.â€
Tests of randomly selected reusable grocery bags found coliform bacteria in 51 percent of them, and E. coli in 8 percent.
According to the researchersâ€™ report, which was released by the Social Science Research Network, most users did not use separate bags for meats and vegetables, 97 percent said they never washed their bags, and bacteria appeared to grow at a faster rate when the bags were stored in car trunks.
When the researchers analyzed data related to E. coli infections, the results were troubling: â€œThe San Francisco County ban is associated with a statistically significant and particularly large increase in ER visits for E. coli infections,â€ they said â€” a rise of at least 25 percent.
In addition, â€œthe San Francisco County ban is associated with a 46 percent increase in deaths from food-borne illnesses.â€
Their conclusion: â€œWe find that both deaths and ER visits spiked as soon as the ban went into effect.
â€œConservative estimates of the costs and benefits of the San Francisco plastic bag ban suggest the health risks they impose are not likely offset by environmental benefits.â€