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Medicine Science

Are Plastic Bag Bans Making People Sick? 533

theodp writes "A paper by Wharton's Jonathan Klick and Joshua Wright suggested that San Francisco's eco-friendly ban on plastic bags might actually be killing people. Klick and Wright found that food-borne illnesses in San Francisco increased 46% after the bag ban went into effect in 2007, with no such uptick in neighboring counties. Most likely, the authors concluded, this was due to the fact that people were putting their food into dirty reusable bags and not washing them afterward. But Tomas Aragon, an epidemiologist at UC Berkeley and health officer for the city of San Francisco, begs to differ, arguing that in order to establish a link between the bag ban and illnesses, the authors would have to show that the same people who are using reusable bags are also the ones getting sick. Aragon offers an alternative hypothesis for the recent rise in deaths related to intestinal infections, noting that a large portion of the cases in San Francisco involve C. difficile enterocolitis, a disease that's often coded as food-borne illness in hospitals which has become more common in lots of places since 2005, all around the U.S., Canada, and Europe (for yet-unexplained reasons). 'The increase in San Francisco,' he suggests, 'probably reflects this international increase.'"
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Are Plastic Bag Bans Making People Sick?

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  • That's funny.... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 18, 2013 @10:44AM (#42935095)

    In Ireland that didn't happen when they introduced a levy on plastic bags years ago and their usage plummeted.
    Might I humbly suggest the cause lies elsewhere? Such as the original food quality. [insert nauseating overused quote about correlation!=causality]

  • by brunes69 ( 86786 ) <slashdot&keirstead,org> on Monday February 18, 2013 @10:49AM (#42935149) Homepage

    There are many many cities in both the USA and Canada (and probably Europe) that have banned plastic bags. If you want to prove your case, then you should be able to point to simmilar correlation of increase of illness in those cities with the start of these bans as well. If, on the other hand, there is no such correlation in these other cities, then this has nothing to do with plastic bags at all and is something else happening in SF.

    I would be willing to wager the latter.

  • Darwinism (Score:0, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 18, 2013 @10:50AM (#42935171)

    If you put a leaky package of ground beef or chicken with your fruits and then proceed to eat said fruits after you get home from the store without washing them, then you're at fault for getting sick.

    You also have to look at it this way... what's a few sick/dead people worth over the fact that there will less bags taking up landfill space and be on this planet for thousands of years not decomposing? worth it.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 18, 2013 @10:57AM (#42935231)

    This is the wrong approach to environmentalism. We need to focus on the big stuff, not on feel-good tokenism like bag bans or super-duper biodegradable coffee cups.

    Does the small stuff help? Yes. But we are stepping over dollars to pick up pennies.

    Want to make disposable bags less of a problem? Let's encourage people to reuse them for small wastebaskets and dog poop pickup. This keeps purpose-bought bags from being made and out of the landfills. I also use them as a packing material, in place of wadded paper or packing peanuts.

    Chinese factories are busy pumping untreated toxic effluent directly into rivers which drain to the oceans. Let's stop pretending that Mother Earth's greatest menace is a plastic bag.

    What is the ecological footprint of a hospital admission? Maybe, for reasons described in TFA, bag bans aren't quite as bad as everybody says - we still know they're getting people sick because busy people don't always wash bags properly - and people as a whole never will. The cross-contamination vector has been well studied by the foodservice industry.

    Let's focus on real environmentalism, not on tokenism designed to make yuppies feel good about themselves.

  • by Joce640k ( 829181 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @11:01AM (#42935275) Homepage

    The rest of Europe too. Bags are mostly banned there but the population isn't dropping like flies.

    This study is flawed, methinks.

  • by Joce640k ( 829181 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @11:04AM (#42935301) Homepage

    Not routinely washing a reusable bag is a plausible source for disease

    Just an observation: Doesn't food usually have its own packaging/wrappers to protect it from the filthy bags?

  • by BasilBrush ( 643681 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @11:06AM (#42935327)

    I can't vouch for San Francisco, but in the UK, the supermarkets have always fought against plastic bag bans. Which suggests to me you are inventing a conspiracy where there isn't one.

  • by MarioMax ( 907837 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @11:11AM (#42935389)

    Just an observation: Doesn't food usually have its own packaging/wrappers to protect it from the filthy bags?

    Fruits and vegetables don't usually come prepackaged, at least in the US. Most meats are packaged, but also tend to leak. Just about everything else comes prepackaged.

  • Incoming politics! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by SuricouRaven ( 1897204 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @11:14AM (#42935409)

    I predict that within a week, at least one right-leaning website is going to be publishing a column using this to attack the idea of environmentalism and arguing that this proves liberalism endangers human lives.

  • by Colonel Korn ( 1258968 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @11:20AM (#42935465)

    The rest of Europe too. Bags are mostly banned there but the population isn't dropping like flies.

    This study is flawed, methinks.

    The paper doesn't say anything about the population dropping like flies. Do you have statistics for food-based illness in Europe before and after a similar ban?

  • by Jetra ( 2622687 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @11:20AM (#42935469)
    Those things are about as dishwasher friendly as a cat with a scratching post. My question is why aren't they using paper bags? Those things are far better than any reusable bag I've ever had. On the plus side, they're multipurpose as well as 100/% recyclable.
  • by s0nicfreak ( 615390 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @11:24AM (#42935527) Journal
    Wait, what's useless about the bag carousels? All of the reusable bags Walmart sells fit on there as well, and they make bagging way more quick and efficient.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 18, 2013 @11:30AM (#42935585)

    How are they useless? The cashier spends less time bagging using that system than they would with conventional free standing racks from which they have to detach each bag. This system has the customer spend the time doing that task instead. It also allows the cashier to start on the next customer while the current one is removing his/her last final bags. Sure it is probably only a 5-10% time savings, but that means you can get by with fewer cashiers or have reduced time in line.

  • by Lehk228 ( 705449 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @11:30AM (#42935587) Journal
    article is written by lawyers, probably lobbyists for a grocery chain, the whole story smells like a pile of bull shit
  • by spike hay ( 534165 ) <blu_ice@violat[ ] ['e.m' in gap]> on Monday February 18, 2013 @11:37AM (#42935661) Homepage

    The real problem with plastic is the creation of plastic marine debris. Plastic bags are the #1 source of plastic marine debris, which is quite harmful to ocean life.

  • by fermion ( 181285 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @11:40AM (#42935693) Homepage Journal
    1) who is paying them

    2) it is plausible they are cherry picking data so they can sue on behalf of people who get sick

    3) did they have an objective epidemiologist on the team. If they just went through the databases without one, they can easily find whatever patterns they are looking for.

    4) Did they have an objective statition on the team. Again, it is easy to find patterns.

  • by rtb61 ( 674572 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @11:46AM (#42935739) Homepage

    Why the hell would I wash a reusable cloth shopping bag. I don't stick slices of bread in it, I stick a packaged loaf of bread in it. I don't stick unbagged fruit and vegetables, they are all separately bagged. I can't imagine walking up to the meat section and start throwing unpacked chunks of meat into the bag, all of it is individually packed. The mind boggles at pouring milk into the bag rather than getting a sealed container.

    I've been using them for years, they are still pretty much clean, I might have cleaned one bag when there was a spill but that was it. No smells or odours from the bag, no weird growths and no illness. Me thinks the idiot neither does the shopping nor the cooking. Rinse all fruit and vegetable prior to eating or cooking. Check for dirty packages prior to storing in pantry or fridge and give them a wipe over if neccesary, pretty rare.

    Next people will be going nuts over how dirty and disease ridden money is and handling it whilst handling your groceries.

  • by anagama ( 611277 ) <> on Monday February 18, 2013 @11:52AM (#42935791) Homepage

    Not to mention the issues with clear cuts, dioxin, high water usage in manufacturing, much greater energy use in manufacturing, and much greater energy use to recycle.

  • by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @11:53AM (#42935805)

    Sometimes packages leak. If buy meat in plastic wrap on styrofoam trays it can be an issue. I tend to buy the vacuum packed stuff though, since it is easier to chuck in the freezer.

  • by zippthorne ( 748122 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @12:01PM (#42935889) Journal

    So, you run a load of bags through the washer/dryer? Now there's all the power use for cleaning the things, as well as water use, and soap. After all that, I'm not sure they seem better than the disposable bags any more....

  • by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @12:06PM (#42935941)

    1. You are wrong, deal with it
    2. I am already using both of those for towels, the increase usage is minor

    Non-disposable bags are the norm outside the USA, there is a reason for that. Right now I have a plastic bag up in one of my trees from some jackass losing one on a windy day. Personally ,I should be able to send the store that sold it a bill for removal.

  • by An dochasac ( 591582 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @12:25PM (#42936085)

    This is the wrong approach to environmentalism. We need to focus on the big stuff, not on feel-good tokenism like bag bans or super-duper biodegradable coffee cups.

    Does the small stuff help? Yes. But ...

    Yes...But... you should have quit while you were ahead. The small stuff IS the big stuff. "5 bags a week," you say. "No big deal." but there are 1 million others in San Francisco who could say the same thing as could 38 million in California, 300 million in the US, 7 billion in the world. (Yea I know let's suppose only 1/6th of the world's population are wealthy enough to throw away plastic every week, that's only 52 billion bags a year, no big deal right?) Except that it is. We've only been able to produce cheap disposable plastic for a couple of decades and already our oceans are filling with plastic.

    Plastic bag bans work and the biggest unintended side-effect is that it will stir up a bunch of self-righteous lawyers paid no-doubt by the bubble-bag industry. I live in Ireland and I've seen this work. In fact of all of the environmental campaigns in my lifetime, only the installation of scrubbers on a nearby coal-power plant (also a "no brainer") had a more direct and dramatic impact than Ireland's plastic bag ban-- this in a country which did not benefit from the "Keep America Beautiful" campaign where Iron Eyes Cody finally guilted enough whiny white Americans out of being jerks to make a difference for a while. I'm not asking everyone to travel to the southern ocean and stop whaling and oil spills. Just don't be a jerk. It isn't as difficult as our nation's cultural inertia makes it seem.

  • by wonkey_monkey ( 2592601 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @12:43PM (#42936263) Homepage
    It's a 45% increase. For example, previously 2 people out of every 1000 (or even 100,000) may have died. Now, it's 3 out of a 1000 (or even 100,000). Still sure that someone would have noticed?
  • by Dcnjoe60 ( 682885 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @12:45PM (#42936285)

    The rest of Europe too. Bags are mostly banned there but the population isn't dropping like flies.

    This study is flawed, methinks.

    Actually, most of Europe has a big problem with C. difficile enterocolitis, so it is quite possible that reusable bags could be a common source of transmission. Read carefully what the epidemiologists are saying. They are not saying that the bags are not the cause of this. They are saying that there isn't the proper data to determine if the bags are the cause of it. In other words, until a proper study is conducted, you cannot claim the bags are the source of the transmission, nor can you claim the bags are not the source of the transmission.

    To paraphrase Schrodinger "Until a valid study is done, the bag is and is not the source of the transmission."

  • by operagost ( 62405 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @01:00PM (#42936445) Homepage Journal
    Doesn't the article say that, in fact, outbreaks of enterocolitis ARE going up in Europe? Europe, where bans on plastic bags are common, yet somehow this proves dirty reusable bags are NOT the cause?
  • by NotBorg ( 829820 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @01:21PM (#42936639)

    Speaking of stepping over dollars for pennies, I'd rather go to the store less often. If we have to make everything about bags then reducing the number of bags used could also be accomplished by not having to purchase shit that was designed to break and be replaced within six to eight months. We shouldn't just count the bags themselves but the stuff that we bring home in them.

    I've always wondered why the environmental evangelism only cares about cars, solar panels, and plastic shopping bags. Stop taxing my bags and start taxing products that just don't last. We have the data, we know what products last a long time and we know that "modern" versions of them won't last a long time. For god sake we know how to engineer better products.

    For example. I have a coffee grinder that I've been using for around 10~12 years. I consider myself lucky to have such a good quality product. A week ago it started making more noise than usual. After years of faithful service it's finally giving out. I know that if I buy a new one--even from the same brand--it will probably last a year at best. When you consider that most of today's products fit in that category of 1/10th the lifespan they should have.... is buying 10 times as much shit really a good idea?

    Crappy products should be taxed, if not illegal. Someone should tell Washington that it's not all about cars and shopping bags.

    I remember when CFLs were just starting to become well known. They literally did last for years. I got them because I was tired of standing precariously on a chair to change an incandescent light every two months. I didn't buy them for the sake of mother earth. I purchased them because they genuinely were better products. CFLs used to last. Every one of the CFLs I've purchased in the last year has had to be replaced. Is the energy saved still going to offset the environmental cost of manufacturing, distribution, and landfills considering your projections originally assumed a much longer lifespan?

    Wake the fuck up America, we need to stop the fraud, waste, and abuse that exists in nearly every market. Nearly everything you have should be lasting longer and we need our government to make that happen. For the sake of the consumer and for the sake of our planet. Get your politically inclined environmental hippies doing something useful (besides legalizing marijuana) and lets get the campaign for better products going.

  • by History's Coming To ( 1059484 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @01:41PM (#42936889) Journal
    Or we could just get over the nonsense of the plastic bag bans. There are two problems with plastic bags, the first is simply littering (which is relatively easy to solve), but the main problem is that "they're made from oil and don't biodegrade". This is a GOOD THING. What do we do with oil? Either leave it in the ground (unlikely, seeing as there's money to be made), burn it (very bad for the environment, as we know) or turn it into plastics. Plastics do not pump carbon into the atmosphere in anything like the way burning oil does, and the failure to biodegrade is a bonus, it means that our discarded plastics, if disposed of correctly will simply sit there in managed landfill doing precisely nothing. Good for the atmosphere, and a future source of plastics when the oil runs out.

    I really don't see the origin of the plastic bag demonisation, other than newspapers and politicians enjoying an easy bandwagon that makes it look like they're being proactive without actually having to change anything or annoy the oil lobby.
  • by Coward Anonymous ( 110649 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @02:16PM (#42937295)

    Non-disposable bags are the norm in Europe. The reason for that is not ecology, it is European stinginess on the oddest things like public toilets, drinking tap water, coin operated warm water in your hotel room and the list is endless. Giving out free plastic bags runs contrary to that innate stinginess and pretending to be ecology minded was a great excuse.

    For a wealthy continent, European stinginess on basic items that are practically common courtesies in other countries is stunning.

  • by spitzak ( 4019 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @02:53PM (#42937703) Homepage

    I agree something is fishy about this. Where I am the ban does not cover the handle-less cellophane bags that are on a big roll in the produce department. Virtually everybody uses these for produce. I think the cashiers would be very unhappy if you brought loose produce to the checkout, at least for items that can be contaminated this way (ie I don't put a pineapple in a bag).

  • by nbauman ( 624611 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @04:48PM (#42938653) Homepage Journal

    Well, I can't think of anyone who understands public health better than a pair of economists funded by a right-wing free-market anti-regulatory think tank. []

    Free market good, government bad. What more do you need to know?

  • Re:Bathing (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Frosty Piss ( 770223 ) * on Monday February 18, 2013 @04:50PM (#42938669)

    So cross contamination would be very easy to pick up that way, I seem to remember that there was a huge outbreak of e.coli in europe regarding brussel sprouts a few years back linked to exactly that.

    This is a great point.

    Where does produce come from? The fields. And here in America (and indeed much of our fresh produce comes from Mexico), have you seen rows of Honey Buckets in the fields? Not too many? A few? Where do you think farm workers pee (and take a dump) in the middle of a hot long California day?

    Yes, that's right, in the field.

    Wash your veggies.

It is not for me to attempt to fathom the inscrutable workings of Providence. -- The Earl of Birkenhead