Tote bags: a health risk?

Something that has always been true is much more so during a pandemic

By PROFESSOR MICHAEL KOSSOVE and VERONICA DAUB
Posted 6/3/20

I have loads of tote bags. I have them at home, at my country home, in my office at school and I keep some in the back of my car. On occasion, I use them to carry shopping bags. They are nice and …

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Tote bags: a health risk?

Something that has always been true is much more so during a pandemic

Posted

I have loads of tote bags. I have them at home, at my country home, in my office at school and I keep some in the back of my car. On occasion, I use them to carry shopping bags. They are nice and wide, and I can get multiple bags or items in them. But after reading an article from Health Canada written by my friend Dr. Jeffrey Farber, the director of the food division, I thought it was important to make the public more aware of potential problems related to tote bags. Of course now, amid COVID-19, those concerns are tenfold.

As we begin to leave plastic behind and use reusable bags more often, it is important to use proper food-safety practices to avoid the risk of cross-contamination, food-borne illness and, now, air-borne illness. You often read about outbreaks of salmonella poisoning from poultry products, and E. coli from meat, fruit and vegetables contaminated from animals, poultry or sewage. These bags pick up bacteria from the foods they carry. Bacteria can also be transferred from the environment, such as the food bins in the store, the grocery cart, the ground and the car.

So far, fabric has not been included in studies of how long the virus can live on certain materials. However, research shows the virus can remain on porous surfaces like cardboard up to 24 hours—this is better than the 72 hours it can survive on plastic, but still something to be aware of. “It’s less at risk of transmitting because the virus gets kind of stuck to the [porous] surface, and so it can’t be easily transferred back off of it,” said Rachel Graham, a virologist at the University of North Carolina, in an interview with NPR. “Porous surfaces also suck the fluid out of it. The viral membrane is a lipid membrane, and so if that becomes dried out, it’s basically done, infectivity-wise.” She went on to explain that those who are worried about contamination, washing with regular detergent will sanitize your clothes and reusable bags.

Some grocery stores in the country are banning the use of reusable grocery bags—a big reversal from the ban of plastic—because stores are worried about customers introducing the virus from their homes. So far, no local stores have banned reusable bags. Places like Pete’s in Narrowsburg, NY and Weis in Honesdale, PA allow resuable bags, you just need to pack them yourself. If you want to keep up with this sustainable practice, considering the current research of the virus surviving on different surfaces, reusable bags continue to be the safer option in terms of spreading the virus and for protecting our planet. Be responsible and wash your bags before essential trips to the store to keep its workers safe.

To avoid general contamination of any kind, Dr. Faber suggests the following steps:

Cloth tote bags should be washed frequently, especially after carrying fresh produce, meat, poultry, or fish. If the bag is not machine washable, wash it by hand, or make it useful for something else that remains in the house. If you notice that juice from your food has leaked into the bag, wash it immediately.

You should place fresh or frozen raw meat, poultry and fish in separate bags from fresh produce and other ready-to-eat foods.

If you are using the bags to transport non-food items, they should be washed before using them for groceries.

After putting your groceries away, clean the area where you placed the bags while unpacking your food, especially the kitchen counter and the kitchen table.

And, perhaps most important, the last thing you should do after putting everything away is wash your hands with soap and water—and now, in the age of a pandemic, the extra step of wiping down your groceries.

Michaeol Kossove is Professor Emeritus and Adjunct Professor of Microbiology, Touro College, School of Health Sciences.

The River Reporter originally printed this article in November 2010; Kossove recently reached out to RR about the importance of an updated reprint; Veronica Daub added the coronavirus content.

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