The Importance of Cleaning Reusable Grocery Bags for Seniors

The country is finally opening up after over a year of the COVID shutdown. As the Independence Day holiday approaches and the summer heat descends upon the Northeast, tens of thousands will be making their way to beaches and picnic locations, and with this activity comes the dangers of food-borne illnesses from unprotected food. But there may be another risk that many do not realize exists before the food is even prepared - unwashed reusable bags.

Dirty bottom of a reusable bag and breeding ground for germs

In many areas of the country, plastic bags used to bag groceries at the store have been eliminated in favor of environmentally friendly paper sacks or reusable bags. But as with anything used to transport food, reusable bags require sanitization to remain safe. Medical researchers report that if reusable bags are not washed thoroughly on a regular basis, there will be a buildup of bacteria, yeast, mold, and coliforms that could result in a health hazard.

In a study done by Canadian researcher Dr. Richard Summerbell in Toronto, he collected 49 “used” reusable bags to test for any potential viral health hazards they may have contained and if they could be a source of disease transmission. What he found was startling.

  • 64% had levels of bacteria.

  • 30% had elevated bacteria counts.

  • 24% indicated the presence of mold.

  • 20% were positive for the presence of yeast.

  • 12% had dangerous levels of coliform.

The study concluded that reusable bags can be an “active microbial habitat and a breeding ground for bacteria, yeast, and coliforms”. The study also concluded that the presence of yeast and mold was a major concern for those with compromised immune systems, such as the elderly or those with HIV or undergoing cancer treatments. In this study, it was also concluded that even washing these bags may not be effective the more they are used and should be replaced on a regular basis.

Environmental damage caused by plastic bags

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that each year, 1 out of 6 Americans (48 million people) get sick from these foodborne illnesses. Of this group, 128,000 end up in the hospital, and some 3000 will die with the elder population appearing to be at most risk of hospitalization and death.

Now, you may be asking, just how do these researchers know that reusable bags are responsible for this? After all, it could be poor hygiene habits or improper storage of food that could be the problem. That is a perfectly reasonable question, however, there is also some research to back up these concerns. For that, we go to San Francisco.

The “City by the Bay” was the first major jurisdiction to enact a ban on plastic bags over a decade ago. After medical professionals reported an increase in the number of bacterial illnesses related to food showing up in emergency rooms, a study was done and a report was issued entitled “Grocery Bag Bans and Foodborne Illness”.

In this study, the authors found that foodborne-related illnesses that resulted in death increased by a whopping 46 percent after the plastic bag ban was put into place. In addition, the numbers from emergency rooms in the area showed an increase of 34% where E. Coli was identified as being responsible for the illness.

Foodborne illnesses in seniors are especially dangerous

The authors further stated that the true correlation between banning plastic bags and foodborne illness cannot be fully known because many people suffer the illnesses without seeking medical treatment. They also wrote that similar increases in these illnesses have been seen in other areas where the plastic bag ban is in effect.

There are also other long-term consequences of foodborne illnesses. In a published article entitled, “The Long-Term Health Outcomes of Selected Foodborne Pathogens”, the author discussed the potential lifelong complications of some foodborne illnesses, especially among seniors. These complications included kidney failure, paralysis, seizures, hearing/visual impairments, and brain damage.

The Norovirus and Seniors

Another virus that appears to love reusable bags is the Norovirus. Most of us have heard about this dreaded illness due to the multiple cruise ships that have been affected by this bug and forced the companies who operated the ships to cut short the trips and return to port for medical treatment of the passengers. For most people, a bout with norovirus results in two or three very miserable days spent close to the bathroom. But for seniors, norovirus illness can be serious, and even fatal.

For the elderly who catch norovirus, symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, and nausea. They may or may not experience headaches, body aches, or a slight fever. Norovirus tends to come on quite suddenly. One moment you’re feeling fine and the next you’re in the bathroom wondering what in the world you ate that is causing such a disruption. Symptoms last around one to two days, but the virus will continue to be contagious for up to two weeks after.

Oregon norovirus outbreak tracked to reusable bags

Norovirus is extremely contagious and spreads rapidly in closed areas such as cruise ships, senior centers, nursing facilities, and even hospitals. The major complicating effect on seniors is severe dehydration and if such an illness occurs in the heat of summer, the problem is compounded.

How have reusable bags been implicated in the spread of norovirus? This lesson comes from a girl’s soccer team in Oregon a decade ago as they became quite ill while traveling for a weekend tournament. When family members made inquiries into the cause of the sickness, Oregon’s Public Health investigators were able to track down and confirm that the norovirus was transmitted through a reusable shopping bag – something that was considered to be nearly impossible up to that time.

Following this incident, Dr. Charles Garba, a researcher who followed the transmission of such pathogens in the environment, stated, “The latest outbreak of norovirus reinforces the research we have conducted about the propensity of reusable grocery bags to act as hosts for dangerous foodborne bacteria and viruses. In reality, reusable bags are likely at fault much more often than we realize: cases often go unreported and uninvestigated”.

He continued, “The cause of roughly 70 percent of foodborne illness cases, the norovirus, spreads very easily and symptoms include projectile vomiting and severe diarrhea. It can have such sweeping consequences as school and emergency room closures. This incident should serve as a warning bell - permitting shoppers to bring unwashed reusable bags into grocery and retail stores not only poses a health risk to baggers but also to the next shoppers in the checkout line".

Keep them clean to avoid illness

Annually in the United States, the norovirus causes about 21 million illnesses, over 70,000 hospitalizations, and on average, 800 deaths – mostly elderly from dehydration. It is the most common cause of foodborne disease outbreaks in this country.

So prolific is this virus that it can spread in hours affecting an entire nursing home, cruise ship, or other closed quarters. So what steps can a senior take if they are using reusable bags?

Check our list below:

  1. Use separate, leak-proof, easily washable bags for meat/poultry/seafood and for fruit and vegetables - retailers can still provide small plastic bags for these higher-risk products which are recyclable at major supermarkets.

  2. Regularly check your reusable bags and replace if soiled or can't be cleaned.

  3. When purchasing your reusable bags, make sure you get a cooler bag to keep your refrigerated and frozen food at a safe temperature on the way home.

  4. You may need to add ice bricks on warm days.

  5. Choose a clean cart or basket for your shopping. The good news is with the precautions being taken due to COVID-19, these carts are being cleaned by markets on a regular basis.

  6. Never put fresh fruit and vegetables that won't be peeled or cooked before eating directly into the trolley; put them in a clean bag.

  7. Plan to do your food shopping last on your list of chores and take it straight home so perishable food doesn't warm to temperatures in the danger zone where bacteria can grow (41° to 140°F).

  8. Don't leave your shopping in a hot car.

  9. When home, pack chilled and frozen products into your refrigerator or freezer immediately.

  10. It's best not to store your reusable shopping bags in your car where they can get hot or can come into contact with pets or dirty items such as sporting equipment and shoes. If you do keep them in the car, zip them into a cooler bag to keep them clean.

Attorney Connelly points out that as more seniors are choosing to age in place with the help of home health aides, they should be educated about the use of these bags.

One thing we know, seniors are extraordinarily susceptible to a multitude of illnesses due to the deterioration of the immune system as we age. The best way to deal with the problem of foodborne illnesses among the elderly is to educate them on a regular basis about proper food handling to prevent such an illness from occurring rather than treating it after the fact", said Connelly. “Home healthcare providers should provide training for their clients on the subject of food safety as part of their overall service plan. This should include the proper handling and cleaning of reusable bags”.

The bottom line is this -- seniors who choose to use reusable shopping bags should wash and/or sanitize their bags on a regular basis to preclude bacteria buildup and possible illness from foodborne pathogens and to prevent viral disease transmission. There is also a new generation of reusable bags that are resistant to germs and available in many areas of the country and should be the choice for seniors.

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