A recent study has exposed public health risks associated with the sudden rise in the use of reusable bags.
Three months after Kenya imposed a ban on plastic bags, most shoppers are either carrying their own reusable bags or purchasing them from shopping outlets.
Although favourable to the environment, experts now warn that the bags are a threat to public health, especially if they are not routinely cleaned.
A joint study in 2010 by the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University’s School of Public Health exposed a number of public health risks associated with reusable bags.
This risk comes primarily from ignorance of the proper use of the bags.
According to the study, most shoppers do not wash the bags as regularly as is required, raising the risk of contamination of items carried.
The study proposes various ways of protecting against these risks, top of which is washing them regularly with water, detergent and bleach.
In cases of reusable bags that cannot be washed, the study recommends regular replacement. However, the study highly recommends that consumers purchase bags made from materials that can be washed.
Failure to wash reusable bags often leads to accumulation of dirt and heat, giving way to breeding and build-up of yeast, mould and bacteria, which are notorious for causing food poisoning.
Additionally, shoppers should not use a single bag for multiple purposes.
For safety, food items should be carried in separate bags from other shopping items.
Further, not all food items should be carried in the same bag. Food that is ready to eat, raw food, meats, fruits and vegetables should be carried in separate bags.
The study indicates that most food-borne diseases originate from food that is prepared and consumed at home, mainly due to cross-contamination during handling and preparation.
Carrying different kinds of food in the same bags leads to cross-contamination, as germs in one type of food are transferred to the next.
The cross-contamination may also occur during unpacking of the food.
In this case, the study recommends washing hands before and after unpacking.
Other ways to stay safe include double wrapping meat to prevent leaking of fluids into the bag, regular replacement of bags and avoiding frequent use of the same bag.
The bags should also be stored in a cool, dry and clean place when not in use.
Reusable bags carrying food should also be put in the back seat of the car instead of the trunk where there are high temperatures favourable for bacteria spread.
The researchers cautioned that mass education was necessary in instances of sudden shifts from plastic to reusable bags, since most consumers were unaware of the implications of the new bags.
Spreading awareness is essential in combating food-borne diseases such as cholera, which has been reported in parts of the country.