E. coli infection spike blamed on plastic bag ban

February 10, 2013

bagbanIn San Francisco, the first major city to pass a plastic bag ban, emergency rooms have seen a spike in E. coli infections and a 46 percent increase in deaths from foodborne illness in the three months after the bag ban that went into effect in 2007, according to a study by professors at the University of Pennsylvania and George Mason University. [HuffingtonPost]

The study, released in August, found a spike in hospital emergency room treatment due to E. coli infections. E. coli bacteria, common in the human intestine and frequent suspects in food poisoning, can range from harmless to lethal.

In October, San Luis Obispo County residents were required to add reusable bags to their shopping lists or pay 10 cents apiece for paper bags to comply with a new ordinance.

The 10 cent charge was enacted to encourage the public to use reusable bags rather than paper. But as people tend to neglect washing those bags, increased food contamination becomes likely.

“Using standard estimates of the statistical value of life,” the study’s authors point out dryly, “we show that the health costs associated with the San Francisco ban swamp any budgetary savings from reduced litter.”

While members of the San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority board argued for and against the plastic bag ban, opponents questioned the safety of reusing cloth bags because bacteria could result in cross contamination and argued against the mandated paper bag charge.

Proponents of the ordinance noted the environmental hazards with plastic bags ending up in waterways, poisoning marine life and polluting landfills.


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The interpretation of the death counts from this study are mistaken–some clever querying of the publically available dataset shows that the increase in deaths due to intestinal diseases is entirely due to C. Difficile infections increasing, not E Coli. C. Difficile is a bacteria transmitted between people via fecal contamination and becomes a problem when antibiotics kill off more benign bacteria in the intestines. It is often acquired in hospitals and nursing homes.