Healthy living

Are eco-bags a 'threat to public health?'

Are you recycling food poisoning? Breeding ground for germs

Many of us have been doing our bit for the environment by switching from plastic to eco-friendly shopping bags. Some of the bags have even become unlikely fashion "must haves".

But we may be re-cycling more than we bargained for, as scientists have discovered that the natural materials used to make the bags can be a breeding ground for food poisoning bacteria which can cause serious illness or even death.

Experts tested 84 shopping bags for the preence of germs. Half were found to contain the bacteria E.coli and many also tested positive for salmonella.

Consumers were unaware of the risks posed by these bags. In fact 97 per cent said they had never considered washing the bags or any other form of hygiene when using them.

Study leader Charles Gerba warned that "our findings suggest a serious threat to public health, especially from coliform bacteria including E. coli, which were detected in half of the bags sampled."

He also urged people to be more aware of the health risks associated with the bags: "Furthermore, consumers are alarmingly unaware of these risks and the critical need to sanitize their bags on a weekly basis."

The study was carried out in three locations in the USA and there was some suggestion that hotter weather made matters worse by encouraging bacterial growth.

Tips for safe use of eco-bags

The good news is that washing the bags will kill nearly all the bacteria. The scientists suggested a number of recommendations for the safe use of eco-bags:

  • There should be printed instructions on reusable bags indicating they need to be cleaned or bleached between uses.
  • Health authorities should invest in a public education campaign to alert the public about risk and prevention.
  • When using reusable bags, consumers should be careful to separate raw foods from other food products
  • Consumers should not use reusable food bags for other purposes such as carrying books or gym clothes.
  • Consumers should not store meat or produce in the boots of their cars because the higher temperature promotes growth of bacteria, which can contaminate reusable bags.

The study was carried out at the Universities of Arizona and Loma Linda.

This article was published on Thu 1 July 2010

Image © iStockPhoto CareyHope

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