Reusable Bags May be Hazardous to Your Health

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Living an eco-friendly lifestyle is just as much a part of me as living a healthy lifestyle is, and I often think that the two are very much related. While we may all feel differently about how our actions are affecting the planet, I think we can all agree that conserving resources and reducing waste are good steps for everyone. And many things that are good for the planet are great for your body, like walking or biking more, avoiding the harsh chemicals found foods or beauty products, or growing your own food.

One of the first changes many of us have made already was to purchase reusable grocery totes to limit single-use plastic and paper bags from the grocery store. Simple, easy, good for the planet—good all around, right? Well, a recent report found that these bags, while eco-friendly, might be bad for your health.

I love using my reusable bags. I even have bumper stickers on my car that say BYOB (bags, that is!), so I took note when I saw a news story linking reusable bags to public health risk.

Researchers from the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University tested the reusable grocery bags carried by shoppers in three major cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco and Tucson. They found E. coli in half the bags sampled, some at levels significant enough to cause health problems, even death. They also found that 97% of the shoppers interviewed had never washed or sanitized their totes, even though, according to co-author Charles Gerba, Ph.D., washing them would kill nearly all bacteria that accumulate in reusable bags.

I guess this doesn't completely surprise me, but I admit that it's something I've never really thought about before. While it's definitely something to cause concern, I don't think we need to swear off our use of these bags completely. In fact, researchers offered four tips in the article to reduce your risk of illness when using reusable bags.
  1. Sanitize your bags after every use. While all bags are made of different materials, many are machine washable or could be disinfected with a sanitizing wipe, for example. I occasionally wash my own bags, but only the soft, cotton bags I own that easily go in and out of the washer. If you haven't yet purchased reusable bags or plan to get more in the future, consider purchasing those that are easily washable.
  2. Separate raw foods from other food products. This is to prevent cross contamination.
  3. Do not use reusable food bags for other purposes. OK, I am totally guilty of this one. Not only do I use my bags for multiple purposes (carrying books to the library, toting my lunch to work, as a carryon at the airport), but I bring them when shopping anywhere I go, not just the grocery store. Going forward, I may just stick with my washable cotton bags for the grocery and the not-easy-to-wash bags for other purposes.
  4. Do not leave reusable bags in your car. Researchers say that the high temperatures inside your car will only promote the growth of bacteria. Guilty here, too. I store my bags in the car most of the time so that I don't forget to bring them back to the store.
Overall, I think this is a good reminder for all of us who tote these bags back and forth. I don't know about you, but I'll be adding my bags to the laundry this weekend!

Do you use reusable bags when grocery shopping? If so, do you usually sanitize them? Will this research affect your bag-toting habits?

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Oh for pete's sake. Wash your hand and food or cook your food before eating and stop obsessing about germs in your bags. Report
YIPES! I never thought of that. Looks like I am going to go home and wash bags! (then keep only washable ones for groceries) Question: How much good are we doing the environment if now we have to wash the darn bags! Report
Wow, I never thought of cross-contamination with my reusable bags. I have several; I don't think they will hold up in the washing machine. I read someone saying about spraying them, I'll have to do that and then only use them for non-food items. I'm going to look for a washable cotton food safe bag(s).
Thanks for the article. Report
Wow... Me, with the hand sanitizer in every purse and pocket, sanitary wipes in every suitcase and car... I have dozens of bags for every use, and nope! Never thought about washing them. They are not the washing machine friendly kind, so I will have to wipe or spray them all down! Thanks for the heads up! Report
Never thought about this. Will definitely wash all my bags! Report
As my mother would say, "Has anyone died yet?". Report
It is always SOMETHING . No matter what you do, the baddies will CATCH you . No I have never washed my bags, the cloth ones that is. The other ones I have NO idea how to santize them! But I too am guilty of using them for alot of things! Guess I will have to shape up! Report
Bacteria may be the least of our worries. Anybody see the NYT article on the Nov. 14 regarding LEAD in reuasable bags? They may not be as green as we thought.

Maybe I'll make a cloth one. Gotta get the groceries home some how! Report
Hi, Thanks for great post! I think that washing your reusable bags is the must, and it doesn't matter if you carry only dry foods or all kinds of groceries in them. If you keep your reusable bags in the car - that is great, then you will never forget them at home when you go shopping. Just when you do laundry on a Sunday morning - don't forget to get them our of your car and wash them! We recommend using lightweight reusable bags from polyester and nylon, they don't take much space in your laundry and they take minutes to dry!
Visit for great reusable bags collection Report
Wow - I am guilty of all of those things! I guess I'l be doing an extra load of laundry tonight. :) Report
OY - I think I commit every one of those don'ts!!!!!!!!!!!! Report
YIKES! thanks for the heads up. I'm headed to the car right now to throw mine in the wash machine. EEEK! Report
I love my green bags. Most of mine are from trader joes, so the cavas ones are used for boxed or canned groceries, the cooler like ones have ice in them for the perishables and the plastic sided ones are for the veggies. I do actually keep them in my closet in the house and I clean them after every use with my Mrs. Meyer's kitchen cleaner (organic cleaner). The cloth ones go into the laundry and are washed with hot water and all of the other kitchen towels and washcloths.

Having said that, I don't have any problem with this article. I think it's important that people understand that you do need to clean them like they are the part of your kitchen that they are. Great article! Report
Knot green ribbons to the handle of each produce bag, red ribbons onto meat, another color onto dry goods & "other".

When you bring them home, turn inside out, and let them air dry overnight. Usually in the morning you empty the dishwasher or dish rack; I turn the bags right side out, fold them up and put them away after I put away the clean dishes, as part of my morning routine.

Spritz or wipe with vinegar if needed while they are turned inside out.

When you make a menu and grocery list, put the list and coupons inside a bag and set them by the door. You're ready for grocery day!

Also when checking out I bag meat in plastic prior to putting in the reusable bag. Most communities have recognized the $$ in capturing recyclables as energy. Report
What an eye-opener! Thanks for sharing! Knowledge is indeed power(ful)! Report
This is where being a knitter has it's advantages. I knit myself several grocery bags out of a washable cotton yarn. I did this so I can wash the bags whenever meat is put in them. Report
Someone at work was just saying this to me a couple of days ago when I brought some food to work in a reusable bag that I had gotten at a recent 5K. I had never really considered the germs that could be building up in there. I'll start sanitizing!! Report
If my bags are contaminated it is due to the bacteria ridden shopping carts that I use to carry my food and bags. has anyone thought to swab the nasty shopping carts? I always separate meats from produce (separate bags). I also use the produce bags to place meats in before I pack my food into the bags. With a sea of plastic waste from california to Japan I think it is our responsibility to use our own bags. Report
This is hardly the way to encourage use of recyclable bags. EEEEW, germs! Give me a break.

Awareness is rising, but as it is many store clerks will either give you a dirty look if you produce your own bags and/or make a large ceremony out of throwing the plastic bag they just tried to give you IN THE TRASH (it's new, for heaven's sake; use it for your next customer).

SO now recyclable bags are supposedly unsanitary? Who has tested those plastic bags from the store, pray tell? Are they sterile, I think not... what residues are in them? What damage are we causing to the environment by the billions of bags we toss around every year?

Granted, perhaps a reused bag might need a wash once in awhile, but I think people can figure that out for themselves and not need someone to tell them everything they try to do is harmful somehow. Report
I would think that if you put meat packages into a plastic bag 1st and are also regularyly washing the totes, you COULD leave them in the car if you use a large resealable zip log bag to store them in. That way, they stay clean & are protected from dust, fumes etc.... Report
I need to wash mine -- but do store in the car or I would never have them. Report
good to know!!! Report
I have reuseable bags, but rarely remember to take them with me to the store. When I lived overseas we shopped at the open markets a lot and we would have to bring our own net bags. They were easy to carry and easy to wash and dry afterwards. They were much more practical to use and were pretty cheap to buy as well. Report
Common Sense needs to be used. I don't have things like meat bagged in them as that's just gross. Plastic can be trashed after toting meat. I do need to wash my bags more often though. I'm also guilty of multiple using. My sister pointed an article to me that showed why that was bad. But seriously, what touched the library book that didn't touch the cereal box already. Report
what isn't hazardous to our health, nowadays. every time we take a step forward for one thing. it's two steps back for something else. Report
Wow, I never knew this and I use reuseable bags for groceries all the time; however, I always have my meats packed into plastic bags for obvious reasons. And I don't use them for anything but grocery shopping. It is simple to wipe them down, I just never thought of it. I won't quit using them, but I will start to wipe them out after every use now. I still think we should all quit using plastic bags. I am so tired of seeing them hanging on trees, laying in gutters.... Report
True--nasty germs are everywhere! It makes sense to wash cloth bags just as we need to wash clothing. It does not make sense that Americans track into our homes our filthy soles; imagine all the contaminates on the bottoms of our shoes! Yuck! Our neighbors remove their shoes without fail before entering their home. They are of foreign nationality, but this practice makes healthy sense to me! We are so "health minded" -- we should all be keenly aware of the importance of thorough hand washing, often!! About the impurities of tap water: My mother lived 97 years and tap water was her beverage. I do not buy water. Report
Guilty! I have washed my bags a few times but I don't wash them after every trip to the grocery store, mainly because I make 2-3 trips per day since it's only 2 blocks from my house. Although most of the things that I buy day to day don't leak onto the bags, occasionally I do buy foods that might but haven't. I never thought about washing them after every use.

I do wash my bags when they are dirty but I think I'll have to buy more bags so that I can put them on a rotation cycle. When I use a bag that had chicken or other meats then I will put it in the hamper and the next trip use a clean one. When all are in the hamper then I will wash them. Report
Common sense strikes again: if your bags get dirty (e.g. meat juice), wash them. If they don't like the washing machine - hand wash them in the sink, blot water with a towel, & let them dry. :-) Report
I've used cloth grocery bags for several decades, with no known illnesses in my family caused by their use.
I was inspired to wash them all this weekend, and sorted the into categories -- one sackful to be used for groceries, and the other for other things, including non-food shopping and library books, etc.
I'll definitely keep using them, and they'll keep living in my car, since that's where I need them to use them. I will wash them more often. Report
I have used all kinds of reusable grocery bags since the early 80s (I still use the cotton “Other“ bags I’ve had since then) and I wash them occasionally because I don’t like to put my food items in dirty-looking bags. But my goodness! Have we become a society of germophobes?! I never get sick and I can’t even remember the last time I had a cold—I think I was 10 or 12—so I know my “bacteria-laden” grocery bags aren’t making me sick. Sometimes I don’t know how we‘ve gotten through life. We need SOME germs to keep up our immunity. Report
While most people have gone on this reusable bag kick I havent I shop at a grocery chain here that provides their cardboard empty products boxes at no charge ;here these boxes at home go into the recycling bin hence no waste at all . As to some one spraying knobs and now the bags "watch out" these products contain chlorines chloromines ;bromines etc. deadly to to the skin and above all to be breathing them in and then they wonder after awhile they got rashes . Report
I have been using reusable bags for a couple of years and I'm guilty of using them for other things and not washing them regularly. Do I think it is necessary to wash after every use...No, but maybe once or twice a month would be good. I'm sure that baggers everywhere are the same so if there is bacteria on your foods then it is going to spread no matter what kind of bag it is in.
I don't keep my bags in the car but do have them hanging beside the door that we go in & out of the most so I remember them on the way out to the store. I don't think it is necessary to freak out & go over board but just use common sense when it comes to your bags. Report
Thank You. Report
This blog just blew me away! I had not seen nor heard about the possibility of contamination in reusable bags. But it makes sense. Nor did I think about washing them either. That too makes sense! I'm guilty of keeping them stored in the car, but I will change that ASAP. Thanks for blogs like this. I'm not sure when/if this would ever be broadcasted where I live. Report
Scary - so thanks so much for this subject.

I took a look at mine - I have canvass ones and plastic ones. Both are machine washable, so I washed them with no issues - dried within 1/2 hour outside on the line in 80 degree weather.

they are now back in our vehicles ready to be used again and again and again ! Report
I have plenty of bags but never think to bring them when shopping. I'll be sure to clean them if I do. Report
Just another article to create germophobes out of Americans. Report
I use large washable bags, and after each weekly trip to the grocery store they go straight into the laundry. I keep 2 different colored ones separate to use for shopping other than food.

We do use plastic bags from the grocery store for meat and some produce (anything with high contamination risk), but then those plastic bags are used to line garbage cans and pick up dog waste. Report
I use some plastic bags but I have other uses for them. THey line my small wastebaskets and I take my food for lunch in them, etc. Report
Washed mine yesterday after reading this article! Report
I just use it for what they was made.
Is good idea to wash it once in a while. Report
Guilty, guilty, guilty. I will wash them more often. I am afraid if I don't leave them in the car I will forget to take them & it will defeat the purpose. I will have to think about that one. Report
I have used reuseable bags for at least 5 years. My favorites are the European style webbed market bags with shoulder straps. They're made of organic cotton and I just throw them in the wash with my whites, then hang them to dry. They're usually dry by the next morning.

I also use some canvas bags, which are also washable, and some recycled plastic bags that I use mostly for meats to contain any leakage. On those, after I empty them, I rinse them out, dry them with a cotton dish towel and leave them open to finish drying.

In all the years I've been using them, I don't think reuseable bags have ever made anybody in my household ill.

I also want to say that I agree with the person who pointed out that proper hand-washing and proper cleaning and preparation of foods goes a long way toward off-settng any risk that might be associated with reuseable bags. If the bags are becoming contaminated, the bacteria has to be coming from somewhere. Sanitizing at the source is just as important.

I have different reuseably bags that I use for different purposes. I have one big one that I use to collect and transport Styrofoam to the recycling center. I have a couple that I use for shopping at discount and department stores. If I'm only picking up a couple of things, I skip the bag altogether.

The good that using reuseable bags should not be overshadowed by this risk. It's a simple matter to wash the bags every so often. Personally, I think every use is overkill except in the case of bags used to carry raw foods. Report
What exactly do you mean by sanatize? Just say 'wash', because otherwise people might think they have to add all kinds of crapp to the washing mashine (I'm not pointing finger, please don't feel attaced but have a quik look at some of the responses)...
Actually one ofe the cheapest and best ways to sanitize a tote is use vinegar, lowered pH (acidic) means bacteria like E. coli are killed off, it even works in cold water!
And honestly we allready have MRS, so plain old soap and vinegar are quite sufficient!

PS I'm from Germany, here you have to pay if you want a bag with your groceries, so I've been using bags, baskets and backpacks for decades, Report
Yii. Hadn't even thought about the possibilities, but now that I do think about it, yes, that sounds very reasonable. I guess I'll be tossing my bags in the wash and trying to keep the food-shopping ones separate from now on! :) Thanks for the heads-up - totally missed this news story in the regular media! Report
Who would have thunk it! Thanks for sharing. I spray my doorknobs and remotes all the time with Lysol so I guess I'll add my tote bags to the list! Report
Never thought to sanitize them & always leave them in my car. Will take them out in a.m. Thank for sharing some truly unknown information. Report
I mostly use reusable bags when i am donating items (or setting aside to donate) and for my library books. I never remember them when I go to the store Report
I do sometimes launder my reusable bags, but maybe I should do so more often. Report