Plastic Shopping Bag Linked to Stomach Virus Outbreak

Reusable plastic shopping bags were behind an outbreak of norovirus — virulent stomach flu — among young soccer players, says a new study in the Journal of Infectious Diseases. Epidemiologists from the Oregon Public Health Division and Oregon Health & Science University found that “virus particles from vomit and feces can actually fly through the air, land on things like bags, and then survive there for weeks.”


As NPR’s health blog, Shots, points out, if you needed a reason to wash out your reusable shopping bags, there it is.

The norovirus is responsible for an estimated 21 million cases of stomach illness in US alone.

In October of 2010, 17 teenage soccer players and their four chaperones became ill after staying at a hotel in Washington state. One player got the virus (how is not known) and became very sick in a hotel bathroom where a plastic, reusable bag of food had been stowed. The chaperone took the girl home and became herself. The bag of food was left behind.

Enter another chaperone, who takes the bag back to her room, and distributes the food to the other players and chaperones. They also get sick. But the key point here is that the first sick player and chaperone never saw or had direct contact with the others before leaving. This means the others got sick from the bag, the researchers concluded.

As study author Kimberly Repp said to NPR, “Everyone has suspected that noro can be transmitted this way, but they haven’t been officially linked.”

As Repp points out, food should not be stored in the bathroom. If someone with norovirus is around food, the food should be discarded.

NPR notes that plastic reusable shopping bags have been culprits as germ carriers in other cases:

As we reported back in 2010, one study found that more than half of a batch of 84 reusable grocery bags contained some sort of coliform bacteria, including E. coli,though the health risks from those findings seemed minimal.

Indeed. The study is a good reminder about how easy it is for viruses to be transmitted and spread. Back in January, there was an outbreak of really bad stomach flu at my son’s autism center. Many students, my son included, and staff caught it. The teachers told me how bad it was (“the worst stomach flu ever“) and my son was utterly miserable; unable to tell us how terrible he felt in words, he banged the back of his head so hard on a wall that he needed staples. Of course, the teachers at his school emphasize hygiene and hand-washing, especially as all the students are autistic or have other disabilities, and the staff is constantly cleaning the facility. But still, it is impossible to account for everything.

While the plastic, reusable shopping bag is not in and of itself the reason for the outbreak in Oregon, it is a reminder of how important it is to clean those bags. How many of us, over-accustomed to our disposable culture in which things are tossed out rather than carefully cleaned and kept, actually do so?

Don’t just wash your hands. Wash those bags too!

Related Care2 Coverage

Mr. Potato Head is 60: Time To Retire the Plastic Plaything?

The Problem with Plastic: Lightweight, Durable and Deadly

Say No to Plastic Bags in the Produce Aisle!



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Peggie Stanley
Peggie S.2 years ago

This is amazing to become aware I love this site ,, I feel empowered to read and be able to share and do something thank you

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson3 years ago

I had Norovirus and it is super contagious. My brother's little boy had it, and my brother was picking up something from my parent's house for him, while I was there picking up my son. My brother was in good health when I saw him. That night he'd gotten it. The next day I had it, followed by my son, my boyfriend, both of my parents, my coworkers and my boyfriend's coworkers (all within 4 days). It kicked our butts but none of us suffered for more than 18 hours. It packs a punch. I'd gotten over Salmonella only two weeks before, and it had lasted for almost 2 weeks, yet in my mind the norovirus was worse.

Joe C.
Joe C.3 years ago

No one has indicated that by changing the reusable bag definition to a reusable bag that must be sanitized, additional pressures are put on the environment. It takes energy to operate a washing machine and chemical use to accomplish the sanitizing of the bag. The sanitizing by-products are flushed into the waste stream. Sanitizing shortens the reusable life of the bag. 90% of the bags are manufactured from non woven polypropylene (a plastic) and probably end up in a land fill anyway.

The real danger lies here. You put fresh meat into your bag. Some purge leaks out and soils the bag and cross contaminates fresh produce also in the bag. You get sick. But an infant or an elderly person can die from a food born illness.

federico bortoletto

Grazie per la condivisione.

janet T.
janet T.3 years ago

There are rules for safely handling food that seem to be forgotten these days. Putting food anywhere near a bathroom would be one of them. When I prepare a big dinner, I prepare meat and put it in the oven, and then I clean and wash everything in the kitchen, countertops and all utensils used to prepare the meat, and I send the towels etc to the wash before I bring out the veggies and prepare the salad. Things like this prevent illnesses.

Aimee A.
Aimee A.3 years ago

Scary stuff! Thanks for posting!

Debbie L.
Debbie Lim3 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Sheri P.
Sheri P.3 years ago

yikes, yuck! thanks for the reminder...i need to wash my reusable bags more often...

Christine Stewart

Aughh! Another reason for the single-use plastic bag lovers to whine about reuseable shopping bags....

Marie W.
Marie W.3 years ago

Since these fools did almost every wrong thing in the food handling book- why should we blame the bag?