Failure to Think Through to the Unintended Consequences

Contaminated reusable grocery bag causes gastric illness outbreak

A reusable grocery bag left in a hotel bathroom caused an outbreak of norovirus-induced diarrhea and nausea that struck nine of 13 members of a girls’ soccer team in October, Oregon researchers reported Wednesday. The outbreak also affected many family members after the team returned home.

The investigation showed that the virus was found on a reusable grocery bag that had been used to store snacks for the team. It had, unfortunately, been stored in the bathroom. When the sick girl used the bathroom, the norovirus was aerosolized and deposited on the bag, where it was later transferred to other girls when they got snacks.

An unfortunate and perhaps isolated incident, you might be thinking. If so, that would be lazy thinking. Consider the role played by just one character in this drama: the “reusable grocery bag”. The name of the thing directs us for how it is principally used: it is a bag that is to be reused for carrying groceries. The story from the LA Times sets the context as a hotel bathroom and a girls soccer team. Yet, think of the life of that “reusable grocery bag”. It has been in grocery stores and would likely be in them again. Indeed, the story doesn’t tell us what happened to that bag. Still in circulation? Let’s hope not.

If it happened once with an effect significant enough to rise above the noise, the potential for more infectious outbreaks carried by “reusable grocery bags” is significant. This isn’t idle speculation or “what if” thinking. Research supports this position. A 2010 University of Arizona study (as reported by Anne Ryman in The Arizona Republic) reveals the infectious truth:

The researchers tested 84 bags collected from shoppers in Tucson, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area and found that just over half were contaminated with potentially harmful bacteria. Twelve percent of the bags contained E. coli, which indicates possible fecal matter and more dangerous pathogens.

“A lot of people are not aware of the potential for the cross-contamination of food,” said Charles Gerba, a UA professor and co-author of the study.

Remember back in the 1980’s when paper bags were going to be the demise of life on earth via the mass extension of trees? Plastic bags were touted as the saving solution. Then plastic bags became the evil handbag of consumerism. Here in my own back yard, Boulder, Colorado is considering a fee on plastic and paper grocery bags while Los Angeles is close to an outright ban on the use of plastic bags. Reusable grocery bags to the rescue. Or so it would seem. In addition to adding to the cost of our groceries, the filthy things become vehicles for efficiently spreading pathogens.

“We wash our clothes when they’re dirty; we should wash our bags, too,” said Kimberly K. Repp, an epidemiologist with the Washington County Department of Health and Human Services in Hillsboro, Ore.

That’s good advice. Yet research is strongly suggesting that such behaviors are not occurring. This is common. It is human nature to take the path of least resistance when working to solve the issues relevant to individual contexts. Conscientious types intent on furthering their individual cause – be it save the planet, save the climate, save the snail darter – may tailor and tune much of their life to facilitate the success of that cause. The fast majority of the population, however, won’t be interested in any one particular individual’s cause and may even subvert that cause if it is in conflict with their individual interests.

We’re seeing this with unwashed reusable grocery bags. It’s an extra hassle to wash the things and the vast majority of the population has never had the need to wash a grocery bag. The habit is there to treat them as disposable and who washes items with a long history of being tossed in the garbage. The habit runs deep.

Look for this to play out in a very negative way with compact fluorescent light bulbs. The added layer of “proper disposal” will be lost on the vast majority of consumers unaware of cumulative effects and incremental influences. In the years to come, landfills will become increasingly polluted with toxic levels of mercury from CFL’s conveniently tossed in with the rest of the trash.

As for those “reusable grocery bags”? Well, they’re for groceries. And they’re reusable. So expect that there are plenty of norovirus and E. coli laden reusable grocery bags drifting around in your favorite grocery story – brushing up against the fresh vegetables you’ll be buying, resting on the same checkout stand conveyor belt on which you’ll be setting your deli sandwich and salad, and brushing up against the very clothes you’re wearing back to work and home.

As with efficient light sources, when it comes to grocery bags, we have yet to find a sustainable, healthy solution.


For the record, I’ve used (and reused) cloth grocery bags for close to a decade. And they’re washed frequently.

Update – 2012.10.07

And then there is the propaganda to deal with as well.

Plastic bag infographic originates from Chinese reusable bag factory