REUSABLE BAG BACTERIA SCARE DEBUNKED.

You’ve got to give the American Chemistry Council some credit, they sure know how to whip up a frenzy in the media.  What the problem is, is that most of the media, even your beloved green blog, doesn’t actually do homework anymore.  Who can blame them?  Who has the time to actually sift through the studies the ACC funds to look at what the actual findings mean?  Well, the ACC does their homework, they have an annual budget of $124 million, at least.  And they write press releases that scare the living hell out of the public by cherry picking data that suits their cause, which is to ensure the bottom line of the industries they represent. I won’t mince words, this is just plain evil.

Here’s the skinny:  The American Chemistry Council funded a study (through the Progressive Bag Affiliates) on bacteria growth in reusable bags. They then took the results (which aren’t scary at all, which I’ll explain later) and sent out press releases to news organizations that dutifully reproduced the findings of the PRESS RELEASE without being fact checked or interpreted.  Even the Washington Post wrote up a little piece about it, entitled, Reusable Bags Found To Be Full Of Bacteria. But had they actually considered the report, indeed conducted an investigative analysis of it, they’d have entitled the story, ‘The Reusable Bag Scare Is Much Ado About Nothing, In A Cynical Ploy To Scare The Well Intentioned Citizen By Knowingly, And Shamelessly Hoodwinking Them.”

But rather than beat on the media, let’s get to the facts.  The study authored by University of Arizona researcher Charles Gerba et al, which you can read here, found that Heterotrophic Plate Count Bacteria (HPC) was found in all the used reusable bags except one.  SCARY!  YOU’RE GONNA DIE!!!! POUR BLEACH ALL OVER YOURSELF!!!! But here’s the thing— bacterial presence isn’t necessarily a BAD thing. Bacteria becomes bad when one species of bacteria takes over and kills all the other bacteria that’s keeping it in check. What goes on everyday on your eyelids, hands, in your mouth, your stomach, your blood is an epic standoff of bacteria playing out a physiological ‘checks and balances.’ HPC bacteria is, “a nonspecific term for the growth of viable, naturally occurring bacteria in water,” and researchers believe that HPC is actually a good thing in stuff like drinking water:  There even appears to be a consensus among experts that high concentrations of HPC bacteria will inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria, although this may not be the case with pathogenic viruses. So, expanding on this school of thought, it’s possible to conclude that from a microbiological perspective, it may be safer to actually encourage the growth of HPC bacteria in drinking water supplies.” What’s next? Is Coca-Cola going to fund a study that shows that tap water has high levels of bacteria and we should all be drinking Dasani?

Sorry, I digress, I’ll stick to to sticking it to the ACC. As the ACC would have you (YOU, THE STUPID CONSUMER THAT THEY THINK YOU ARE) believe, bacterial presence in anything means, YOU’RE GOING TO DIE IF YOU BAN PLASTIC BAGS.  But what’s a Washington Post journalist to do when he or she reads this from the report, “HPC bacteria ranged from 45 to greater than 800,000 per bag. Only one bag was negative for HPC bacteria.” Here’s what I’d suggest, call a damn biologist for god’s sake for a five minute conversation and let her set you straight. To any normal person without a biology degree, he or she would interpret this statement as, ‘very high counts of bacteria in reusable bags.’ But here’s the rub, as biology tells us, it’s not harmful and actually, it can be beneficial.  The study also concluded, from their whopping sample size of 84 bags (seriously, 84bags!!!!!!!!  Now, that’s some serious science going on boys and girls) that 12% of the bags sampled had E. coli. Well, surely, that’s GOT TO BE BAD! RUN FOR THE HILLS!  But again, the devil (The ACC, in this case) is in the details– NONE OF THE STRAINS OF E. COLI PRESENT ARE THE KINDS OF E. COLI THAT CAN HARM YOU.  Coliform bacteria are myriad in everything, everywhere.  But the kind found in these bags, yup, totally innocuos. But what about the bacteria that does make you sick?  The study attempted to find Salmonella and Listeria, but guess what?  They didn’t find it!!!!  Now, when the researchers artificially added meat juice to a bag and let sit for awhile, guess what happened?  HARMFUL BACTERIA GREW. Are you freaking kidding me?  What scientist on this planet needs to test whether meat juice if left unchecked on any surface or material would grow bacteria?  I’m going to scream!

Here’s my favorite quote on this whole debate, speaking about harmless strains of E. coli and other bacteria levels found in the Gerba study— From a Consumer Reports Researcher: “A person eating an average bag of salad greens gets more exposure to these bacteria than if they had licked the insides of the dirtiest bag from this study,” says Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist at Consumers Union.

Here’s the take-away:  you have enough sense to wash your underwear, right?  Apply that sense to everything in your life and you’ll be just fine.

Stiv Wilson

Portland Surfrider Foundation Chapter

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