D.C. Plastic Bag Tax: Do Plastic Bag Bans And Taxes Cause Diarrhea And Death?

02/07/2013 12:52 pm ET | Updated Feb 03, 2014

WASHINGTON -- D.C.'s plastic bag fee: good for the Anacostia River, bad for people wanting to avoid gastrointestinal disease?

Bloomberg recently published a fairly stomach-turning piece by columnist Ramesh Ponnuru about the downsides to plastic bag bans and taxes, like the five-cent fee in effect in the District since 2010:

[T]he [plastic bag] industry has highlighted news reports linking reusable shopping bags to the spread of disease. Like this one, from the Los Angeles Times last May: “A reusable grocery bag left in a hotel bathroom caused an outbreak of norovirus-induced diarrhea and nausea that struck nine of 13 members of a girls’ soccer team in October, Oregon researchers reported Wednesday.” The norovirus may not have political clout, but evidently it, too, is rooting against plastic bags.

Warning of disease may seem like an over-the-top scare tactic, but research suggests there’s more than anecdote behind this industry talking point. In a 2011 study, four researchers examined reusable bags in California and Arizona and found that 51 percent of them contained coliform bacteria. The problem appears to be the habits of the reusers. Seventy-five percent said they keep meat and vegetables in the same bag. When bags were stored in hot car trunks for two hours, the bacteria grew tenfold.

Of course, the study finds that washing reusable bags can eliminate all but .01 of the bacteria. But, as Ponnuru notes, "97 percent of people reported that they never wash their bags."

It gets worse. A study of San Francisco's bag ban put out last year by two law professors -- Jonathan Klick from the University of Pennsylvania and Joshua D. Wright from George Mason University -- made the grim finding that people are actually dying because of the bag ban. "The San Francisco ban led to between 5.4 and 15.8 additional deaths," the professors wrote, concluding that "the current trend toward bag bans may be imprudent" on economic grounds.

Fox News put the results more succinctly: "San Francisco's Plastic Bag Ban Kills About 5 People a Year."

Now back to the nation's capital. D.C.'s plastic bag use has, we know, dropped dramatically since the tax went into effect, and advocates say that our waterways are substantially cleaner.

But how's that five-cent fee going in the murdering department? We've reached out to D.C.'s public health authorities to see if they notice any relationship between reusable bags and death and/or diarrhea. We will update this piece when we have more information to share.

In the meantime, go wash your reusable bags.

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