Are reusable grocery bags a potential health hazard?

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The average American family will use more than 400 plastic bags per year, or if they are conscious about the environment, they could be using the same four reusable grocery bags. It's a choice that's better for the landfill, but could going green actually be a biohazard? The answers might surprise you.

For years it was the first question of the check-out line: paper or plastic? But reusable grocery tote bags have steadily become the new norm.

"I've probably been using them for five or six years." said Jennifer Eekoff.

"Since November." said Elva Witt.

"Many years." said Kim Tyler.

Some do it for the incentive of reimbursement.

"Absolutely! In fact I think they shouldn't charge you if you don't have your own bags!" said one shopper.

Others do it to help do their part for the environment.

"The recycle aspect, I think we use too many plastic bags!" said Tyler.

Their purpose is simple, help transport your groceries. But groceries aren't the only thing these bags are bringing home. Nasty bugs like norovirus can hitch a ride inside and in some cases E. coli bacteria has been found in the same bags that your meals travel.

Unfortunately, avoiding contamination is a tall order. In the grocery store alone, a trip to the meat counter holds countless chances for the bag to come into contact with raw meat and the juices of thawing poultry. Even the home environment your bag is brought into can play a big role.

In fact a 2011 study at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University found bacteria in 99% of the bags they tested. Half of those bags carried coliform bacteria and 8% carried E. coli, indicators of fecal contamination. That's right, your grocery bags could be carrying poop particles.

"No surprise at all!" said one shopper.

"It doesn't surprise me! I've just got bigger things to worry about." said Eekoff.

"I do wash my produce and my other products are usually packaged and they are only in there for… maybe I'm thinking about the five second rule or something like that, which by the way is not true either right?" said Tyler.

So this begs the question: is shopping with reusable grocery bags a health hazard? Avera infection control program manager Judy Lamphron says it's a given these bags will carry some bacteria and could pose a health risk. But she adds another question.

"Is that enough to make you ill? It really varies from person to person. I know we have immuno-compromised people out there, we have infants, we have the elderly; it's just an awareness to make sure that we are storing them properly, we are washing them properly, and we are doing hand-hygiene when we need to." said Lamphron.

Our hands and what we touch are the main cause of grocery bag contamination, so hand washing is very important but so too is where you store the bags. Personally my grocery bags both plastic and reusable are kept under the sink. That's a big no-no.

"Primarily because you're going to have dripping from the gooseneck, water can evaporate and condense down into mold or fungus; there's all kinds of stuff living underneath there so it's best not to store anything underneath your sink other than possibly your trashcan." said Lamphron.

It may seem like a no brainer, but cleanliness is the the best way to fight potential contamination. However, washing your bags isn't as simple as throwing them in the washing machine. A lot depends on the material their made of. Woven bags can go right in the laundry but many bags are made of polypropylene, a fiber-type plastic, and probably wouldn't survive the dryer. These kind of bags should be washed in the sink once a week with warm water and anti-bacterial soap and then let them air dry inside and out. Even with regular washing, to help limit contamination these kind of bags should be thrown in with the recycling and replaced every three months.

It's quite a regimen to follow, so do grocery shoppers know the rules of hygenic totes and actually wash these bags?

"Never!" laughed Eekoff.

"... No." admitted Tyler.

Elva Witt says she does wash her bags but admitted probably not enough. The few shoppers we spoke with aren't alone, studies show only 3% of people using these bags say they regularly wash them, you can count me in the guilty group as well. So far there hasn't been a pandemic caused by unsavory grocery tote bags, but the potential is there. The best defense is a change in hygiene habits, so going green won't make you or others feel green as a result.

grocery bags are just one way we spread bacteria. A recent study suggested beards can be hosts to germs and so can your cell phone; especially if you take it into the bathroom it can become petri-dish for bacteria as well.