Reusable bags: A danger to your family?

Possible dangers of reusable bags

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - Just like glass milk bottles, plastic shopping bags will become a thing of the past.  Los Angeles County has banned them, and some countries banned them, too. 

It's a big change, but is it change for the better?  We've uncovered some startling evidence: Reusable bags may be hazardous to your health and the health of your family.

Shopper Lori Espinoza said, "Pretty much with all of my shopping I use reusable bags.  I've always got at least one, two or three in the car."
"I've been using them for years," said shopper Darlene More.

"I always have my bags with me whenever I shop," said Rebecca Whilted, a local shopper.

More and more stores have decided to bag plastic bags as more and more shoppers turn to reusable bags

Dr. Amy Austin uses reusable bags.

"It saves the environment," she said.

"I think with a lot of things happening in the earth today in our environment it is definitely go green a better way," said Espinoza.

"I get tired of throwing the plastic bags away," said shopperUrsula Irwin.

"We've been trying to encourage people to stop the use of single-use plastic bags," said Michelle Mician, Palm Springs sustainability manager.

Palm Springs is one of several cities in the Valley studying the idea of banning plastic bags.

"The economic impact of just cleaning those up, you'll see them in the trees, you'll see them in the gutters, you'll see them in the streams, then the environmental impacts are huge," said Mician.

There aren't any definite plans yet, but some believe it's only a matter of time.

"I think we can do it Valley-wide," says Mician.

Kate Castle is studying the idea of a plastic bag ban for Palm Springs "because it's happened in LA, I think what we are seeing is that it is possible."

"Hopefully, we will see something in 2013," said Mician.

But before we all turn to reusable bags, let's take a closer look.  After all, you are going to eventually eat what you put in there.  The bags look clean, but does that mean they are?

"Right now there are a lot of people using reusable bags," said Dr Ryan Sinclair from Loma Linda University.

Sinclair tested reusable bags in his lab.

"Overall, we found that 10 percent of the bags had E. coli, about 50 percent around there had chloroforms and almost all of them had some kind of bacteria," said Sinclair.

He found the same type of bacteria inside the bags as you would find in dirty underwear.

"I don't think anyone wants fecal bacteria in their grocery bag," said Sinclair.

Most of us store these in the back of our cars -- a warm, dark place, the perfect breeding ground for bacteria.

Shoppers to whom we talked were shocked.

"Oh, you're kidding, I would have never thought that," said Espinoza.

"Oh, yuck.  Really?" said Irwin.

The danger is real. Just recently scientists traced a 2010 outbreak of norovirus in Oregon to a reusable bag.  It contained contaminated food for a girls' soccer team.

"They are a public health concern," said Sinclair.

Before you throw out your reusable bags, there is a simple solution: treat them like you do your underwear.

"This just means the bag is dirty, it's dirty just like your socks will be dirty or it's dirty just like your underwear will be dirty, so we know that we have to wash our underwear and our socks. However, for some reason, reusable grocery bags are a new addition to our culture and our society and so the word isn't quite out yet that you have to wash these things," said Sinclair.

Sinclair's study showed a cycle in the washing machine gets rid of the potentially harmful bacteria.  It sounds easy enough but changing old habits can be tough.

Sinclair said it will take a lot of education for people to add washing reusable bags to their to-do lists.

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