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Your Tote Bag May Be Putting Your Health at Risk

Update Date: Feb 08, 2013 12:23 PM EST

That tote bag that you are carrying for your groceries may be good for the environment, but could it be bad for your health?

That appears to be the finding of two different studies conducted last year and in 2011. The studies found that the use of reusable tote bags for groceries elevated the risk of food contamination.

The more recent study was conducted by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and George Mason University. Released in August, it studied incidences of food contamination in San Francisco, a city which was among the first in the nation in instituting a plastic bag ban. The report found that, in the three months after the ban was enacted in 2007,  San Francisco saw an increase in the number of hospital emergency room visits attributed to E. coli. Researchers also reported a 46 percent spike in the number of deaths from food-borne illnesses.

The study's findings were similar to that of a study, conducted by researchers at Loma Linda University, that was published in 2011. The study was conducted by examining the bags of randomly stopped shoppers in Arizona and California. They found that half of individuals used their bags over once a week, and three-quarters did not separate their meats from their vegetables. What's more, they found E. coli present in 10 percent of the bags that they surveyed.

As the Huffington Post explains, the problem lies in the fact that many people do not regularly wash their tote bags. In fact, according to the study conducted by Loma Linda University researchers, a mere 3 percent reported that they washed their bags regularly. Happily, the risk is easily manageable. Research showed that, by simply washing the bags by hand or in a washing machine, 99.9 percent of E. coli bacteria was eliminated.

Environmental groups criticized the Loma Linda study, in particular, because the researchers received money from the American Chemistry Council, an organization opposed to the plastic bag ban. They also note that both studies were conducted before the bans were fully enforced. They believe that, as more people use reusable tote bags, more people will realize that they need to be washed regularly, like clothes do.

San Francisco phased in its plastic ban; in 2012, it was fully enforced. In addition to San Francisco, 40 other towns and cities have either bans or bag taxes.

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