Green shopping bags linked to stomach flu

Green shopping bags linked to stomach flu

Summary: An entire girl's soccer team was infected with an outbreak of norovirus. The source: a reusable grocery bag that they ate cookies from.

TOPICS: Malware

The potential for "green" reusable shopping bags to carry dangerous pathogens has been discussed here on ZDNet Health in some depth. Past coverage brought up mixed feelings for readers. Some readers thought the issue was being blown out of proportion. Other readers thought that because I was openly discussing a legitimate issue with something "green" that I was in some kind of environmental denial (which is not the case).

See also: “Green” shopping bags could make you green around the gills

See also: Practicing safe sacks may not mean plastic baglessness

Recently, the Oregon Public Health Division released the information that an entire girl's soccer team was infected with an outbreak of norovirus, a foodborne illness that causes severe symptoms including projectile vomiting and diarrhea. The source: a reusable grocery bag that they passed around and ate cookies from.

The Journal of Infectious Diseases says this represents the first verified occasion in which the virus was transported by an inanimate object, and that, "this also illustrates one of the less obvious hazards of reusable grocery bags."

Dr. Charles Gerba, a professor in the Departments of Soil, Water and Environmental Science at the University of Arizona who conducts research about the transmission of pathogens through the environment, issued the following statement:

"The latest outbreak of norovirus reinforces the research we have conducted about the propensity of reusable grocery bags to act as hosts for dangerous foodborne bacteria and viruses. In reality, reusable bags are likely at fault much more often than we realize: cases often go unreported and uninvestigated.

"The cause of roughly 70 percent of foodborne illness cases, the norovirus spreads very easily and symptoms include projectile vomiting and severe diarrhea. It can have such sweeping consequences as school and emergency room closures. This incident should serve as a warning bell: permitting shoppers to bring unwashed reusable bags into grocery and retail stores not only poses a health risk to baggers but also to the next shoppers in the checkout line."

So don't take my word for it. Listen to Dr. Gerba. The danger is real.

Norovirus, sometimes referred to as "the stomach flu", is something many of us have unfortunately experienced. It is unpleasant and miserable, but we may minimize its seriousness because of its familiarity. However, the fact is that it is responsible for 21 million illnesses, 70,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths a year in the US. It's likely to have a more serious effect on the elderly, the young, and those with compromised immune systems.

If you like your reusable bags, don't despair. Just make sure to buy the kind that can stand up to washing in hot water, and be sure to throw them in the wash between uses.

Topic: Malware


Denise Amrich is a Registered Nurse, the health care advisor for the U.S. Strategic Perspective Institute, and a mentor for the Virtual Campus at Florida's Brevard Community College.

Nothing in this article is meant to be a substitute for medical advice, and shouldn't be considered as such. If you are in need of medical help, please see your doctor.

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  • Stating the Obvious

    As it seems to me, at least

    By the time one has factored in the energy and materials use involved in thoroughly washing a re-usable bag it would have been better to have used a disposable, especially if the disposable was made to be efficiently recycled (after possibly being re-used for non-food uses). Or to be cleanly burnt in a large CHP plant or a domestic wood etc. stove.

    Once there are significant health hazards (and energy use and pollution associated with dealing with them) to argue for reusable bags, for anything that needs hygiene, seems futile
    • Why not just wash the bags?

      Just like one does one's clothes. It's not that hard.

      Reply to thx-1138_:

      Which greenies? Please note that the environmentalist movement is not a monolith (though there are about as many nutcases there as there are in the Conservative movement) and it seems unlikely to me that someone is going to picket your house because you wash your shopping bags (and if someone does, you know how much to pay attention to him).
      John L. Ries
      • too obvious

        plus the greenies will argue that washing only leads to pollution through waste water and wash chemicals.

        A group of kids almost died through chronic food poisoning ... but hey! the use of a plastic disposable bag was averted in the process. So i guess it was all worth it .. f@#k!n not!

        Something is really wrong in the world when it gets so kids can't even share a few cookies without being in mortal danger.
  • No surprises here.

    From deaths due to banning DDT, to deaths from banning asbestos in the twin towers, to deaths from banning foam on the Space Shuttle, to deaths from cholera from banning chlorine in water supplies, to illness from reusable shopping bags, the green movement has a long, documented history of harming people. But, if you try to point it out, you are viciously attacked for wanting to kill people and destroy the planet.
    • OK, by attrition then

      You obviously haven't looked at the "Microsoft Goes Green" article, where to read the comments you'd think the Green Weenies were arguing that we can only speed up Saving The Planet by killing the people. I think they secretly want people dead. All the people. Everywhere.
      Robert Hahn
    • @baggins_z ... d@mned if you do & d@mned if you don't ..

      [i]"... a food borne illness that causes severe symptoms including projectile vomiting and diarrhea. [/i]

      Strange, those symptoms can't be too far removed from those you might experience from eating the bean-lentil and canola curd some of these greenies swear by. Don't get me wrong, i'm all for healthy food, but c'mon! you gotta draw a line when folk remove the flavor, taste and enjoyability of food and replace it with glorified slop.
      • that's a bit irrelevant

        You cannot change the truth or non-truth of someone's argument by insulting them personally. All that ever does is make for more arguments.
    • Citations please

      You are entitled to your own opinions, you are not entitled to your own facts. First, you will be hard pressed to defend your contention regarding DDT. Are you claiming that somehow, allowing insects to survive lead to people dying? Are you basing this on some sort of paranoid sci fi fantasy, or perhaps some reverse Malthusian nonsense?
      Likewise, the idea that the lack of asbestos lead to deaths in the twin towers evinces a MONUMENTAL ignorance of the facts and the physics involved in both/either Trade Center disaster(s). Having asbestos would not only NOT have affected the structural issues, allowing unfettered use of asbestos would have lead to a significant increase in deaths from other causes.
      Your myth-peddling about the space shuttle is just utter nonsense, and your claims of mass illness from banning chlorine (which has happened virtually nowhere) is equally unfounded.
    • illness from reusable shopping bags

      You have your opinion there. Well, that's brilliant, but you don't have any facts to defend yourself. Opinions are not facts for you to know so don't judge the green movement.

      Pandinavia AG Product Specialist
  • er ... are these bags still "green" then?

    If you have to keep washing them in hot water and soap, aren't they less green than plastic bags?

    Of course, if they kill more people, I suppose they're considered *more* green :D

    "In the event that I am reincarnated, I would like to return as a deadly virus, in order to contribute something to solve overpopulation."
    - Prince Philip, in his Foreward to If I Were an Animal; United Kingdom, Robin Clark Ltd., 1986.

    "The first task is population control at home. How do we go about it? Many of my colleagues feel that some sort of compulsory birth regulation would be necessary to achieve such control. One plan often mentioned involves the addition of temporary sterilants to water supplies or staple food. Doses of the antidote would be carefully rationed by the government to produce the desired population size." ??? Prof Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, p.135

    "A total population of 250-300 million people, a 95% decline from present levels, would be ideal."
    - Ted Turner, CNN founder and UN supporter

    "Childbearing should be a punishable crime against society, unless the parents hold a government license. All potential parents should be required to use contraceptive chemicals, the government issuing antidotes to citizens chosen for childbearing."
    - David Brower, first Executive Director of the Sierra Club

    "In searching for a new enemy to unite us, we came up with the idea that pollution, the threat of global warming, water shortages, famine and the like would fit the bill ... All these dangers are caused by human intervention and it is only through changed attitudes and behaviour that they can be overcome. The real enemy, then, is humanity itself."
    - Club of Rome, The First Global Revolution, pg.75

    Of course, that's why DDT was banned ... to control certain populations ...
    • harvey_rabbit

      There ARE too many people. What dimwit doesn't already know that?
  • Washing bags is not an environmental catastrophe.

    Washing those bags DOES NOT need to contribute anything to environmental pollution, unless you find it necessary to do a separate load just for those bags. Just throw them in with your dark clothes next time you do the washing. It won't require any extra detergent or water.

    Even if the bags are not washed, they can not possibly be any worse than the cloth handles on the plastic baskets that so many of the larger markets supply for the convenience of their customers. Those handles are never washed and are held by hundreds of hands each week, passing on whatever those hands had on them at the time.
    • true, the shoping cart handles are not clean but

      many of them get left outside, where the sun and the rain will kill or wash off the germs to keep a relatively small amount of live germs actually on them. the Cloth bags sitting in your warm dark trunk are not being washed off. They are in a lovely environment for any germs on them to grow unchecked until you finally take them out of the car to go shopping a week later. Did you sterilize your trunk before putting them back in after you brought home groceries this week? if not, then you may have just recontaminated the bags from whatever was in your trunk and then left them in there ready to grow more bugs.
  • I'm a bit confused...

    Were the cookies not packaged in any way, just lying bare in the bag? Even with plastic non-reusable bags, I always assume there could be anything in those bags in terms of bacteria or microscopic insects. But everything I put in there is packaged - in a box, a bag, some kind of wrapper. Your food can't pick up a virus if it doesn't come in contact with the bag. Anyone who puts food directly into a bag without intermediate packaging is not very bright.
    • @Unusual1 food wrappers & contamination

      A lot of people need to see training on secondary contamination or transference. If the reusable bag is contaminated ("bad" or "dirty"), then whatever first/next comes in contact is bad. And, so does whatever comes in contact 2nd -- such as your hands and the kitchen counter or refrigerator shelf. It is difficult to handle the first, clean it, put it away, or use it and not get it "dirty" again. How does one person handle a "bad" paper, cookie bag & paper box of cake mix, etc. then clean it and store it without it getting "dirty" again? After all, one has handled it with newly "dirtied" hands. Difficult situation? Ask a licensed health professional.
    • food doesn't have to be put loose in the bag.

      It's all about probability really. None of us use sterile technique when we unpack our food or when we 'grab a cookie'. If the bag is clean then OK, no problem. It's much more probable (but, I agree, never 100% sure) that the plastic bags are clean than the reused cloth bags. So, the plastic will likely cause far fewer infections than will cloth bags. Now, that aside. If there is a dirty bag, it is quite likely that the cookie container will get the outside contaminated since that is where the two surfaces touch. Now, the cookie container is contaminated and your kid wants a cookie. Likely, they just open the container (touch the outside) and get their hands contaminated. Now they pick up the cookie with their hand and get the cookie contaminated and bingo. we wonder why our kid has stomach flu the next day. Yes, you can come in contact with the virus, even if the food is wrapped any way you want to think about, unless you use sterile procedures while opening the food container, which none of us do. Ask a Surgeon what sterile procedure is and the ways that contamination can be transferred between surfaces easily.
      I'll stay with the cleaner plastic rather than the almost certainly contaminated cloth bags thank-you-very-much.
  • It wasn't because they used a green reusable shopping bag.

    The problem was their unsanitary practices of consuming food directly from the bag and then not cleaning it afterward, then eating from it again. That's like not cleaning your kitchen counter for a week. Just begging for food poisoning.
    • the article doesn't mention their sanitary practices

      So how can you comment on their practices? You are just blindly dismissing this at your own peril.
  • I stopped using those cloth bags after a few months.

    Blood leaked from meat one trip home and the bag was obviously contaminated. Yes, I could have washed it but that was just a bag that I could SEE was contaminated. It was obvious to me that small crumbs of food and other dirt was getting into the bags continuously, even just sitting in the back of the car waiting for me to use them again.
    that meant every bag was likely contaminated, each and every time I used them. They weren't going to ever be as clean as the fresh unused plastic bags that we now have to pay for; but I decided the payment was a small price to reduce the risk of infection.
    ...And don't go blaming bad hygene or bad practice. Ask a doctor about preparations for surgery. They don't even let anything touch or even wave loosely over their instruments until actual use. How was I to get food out of bags that were likely contaminated every time I used them (but not always with a pathogen that would make me sick), without getting something else dirty? my hands, my food, my table, my fridge, ... Sure, good practice will eliminate the pathogens 99.9% of the time but that means 0.01% of the time, something gets past my due diligence and someone might get sick. A simple truth in science that I use when I teach is "there is no such thing as 100% in real life". Simpler to just not use the cloth bags ever again. Now those reusable bags that I bought mostly sit unused or are convenient for other non-food uses and I buy my plastic from the store each time.
    • Science and OCD

      First, the idea that most food coming into contact with the bag causes contamination is absurd. It in no way shape or form "meant every bag was likely contaminated". If it did, that implies that your food was contaminated, and as such, any illness you contracted would have been vectored to you via that food, NOT the bag. This is just simple logic. Just like you can't get cholera from your own fecal contamination, likewise, if food that you do not cook (the implication of your "small crumbs of food and other dirt" comment) contaminated your bag, then you would have gotten sick from that, not the bag.
      Second, please note that there is NO empirical evidence backing over 84% of current hospital practice, and this includes surgery. In fact, a recent analysis speculated that many of these practices, such as hand washing with bacterial soap prior to an operation, serve NO function whatsoever other than as a firewall against malpractice suits. (JAMA)