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).
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.