By RICHELLE GONZALEZ
SILVER SPRING, Md. (October 24, 2011)—Reusable grocery bags may be good for the environment, but they could be making you sick.
With Montgomery County set to impose a tax on disposable grocery bags that's designed to discourage their use, a new study has found that intestinal bacteria like E. coli flourish in unwashed reusable bags.
The study, published in the latest issue of the International Association for Food Protection's Food Protection Trends magazine, tested 87 reusable bags obtained at random from shoppers in California and Arizona.
Charles Gerba, a professor at the University of Arizona who conducted the study, found that 8 percent contained E. coli, among other harmful food-borne pathogens.
Putting a reusable bag through the wash can eliminate almost 100 percent of the bacteria. But the study found that only 3 percent of shoppers surveyed had washed their reusable bags between uses.
Starting Jan. 1, Montgomery County will impose a 5-cent tax on all disposable bags, following a similar move by Washington, D.C., last year. One cent of each nickel will go to the retailer. The rest will go to litter cleanup.
The new tax aims to reduce pollution in streams that flow into the Potomac River, which can degrade the county's principal source of drinking water, county officials said.
"Right now the county is spending about $3 million a year to clean up after these things. The fewer bags being used and circulated, the fewer will be thrown away," Montgomery County spokesperson Bonnie Ayers said.
The county plans to educate the public about the bag tax by providing information to residents on big shopping days like Black Friday, which the county is now referring to as "Green Friday," Ayers said. Montgomery County will hand out 30,000 reusable bags to residents by Jan. 1.
The county also provides information on its website about the potential for bacterial growth in the bags.
"I don't think that people always think of cleaning their bags, but it's like any other item—it's going to get soiled or dirty," Ayers said. "If you don't want to wash them, just wipe them out."
But interviews with local residents strolling through area grocery stores this week found that not everyone takes steps to decontaminate the reusable bags.
Shopping at the Whole Foods Market in Silver Spring, Lauren Simms of Takoma Park said that even if she knew bacteria could be growing, she wouldn't wash her reusable bags.
"I'm pretty low-maintenance," said Simms, who puts only pre-wrapped items in her bags.
Other precautions that can eliminate health risks include packing raw meats separately from fruits and vegetables to avoid cross-contamination and not storing reusable bags in the trunk of the car where high temperatures increase bacteria growth.
The bag study found that when reusable bags contaminated with meat juice were left in a trunk for two hours, the number of bacteria grew tenfold.
Some local residents said they separate meat from other groceries when using reusable bags.
"I don't like my meat to touch my other stuff," Robyn Nguyen, of Silver Spring, said while shopping at Whole Foods in Silver Spring.
Nguyen said that bacteria are a concern. She will not pack her meat in reusable bags with her other food; she packs it separately—in plastic grocery bags.
Kay Why, of Silver Spring, said that although she buys reusable bags, she doesn't keep them for long.
"When I feel that it's a little gross, I throw them out and buy new," Why said.
Instead of throwing them out, Natalie Slater, a spokesperson for Reuse It, a company dedicated to selling reusable items, said shoppers should take the time to wash them.
"Cleanliness is no excuse for not using disposable bags. Simply throw your bags in with your clothes," Slater said.