Wash your bags — or else

San Francisco passed America’s first ban on plastic bags in chain groceries and drugstores in 2007. In a research paper for the Institute for Law and Economics, law professors Jonathan Klick and Joshua Wright crunched state and federal data on emergency room admissions and food-borne illness deaths and figured that the San Francisco ban “led to an increase in infections immediately upon implementation.”

They found a 46 percent rise in food-borne illness deaths. The bottom line: “Our results suggest that the San Francisco ban led to, conservatively, 5.4 annual additional deaths.”

So is San Francisco’s bag ban a killer? Conceivably, yes, but probably not.

Intuitively, the professors’ findings make sense. The city’s anti-bag laws are designed to drive consumers to reusable bags. Consumer advice types warn people about the dangers of said bags becoming germ incubators. I got this from TLC’s website:

“Designate specific bags for meats and fish. Wash these bags regularly — preferably after each shopping trip — to get rid of bacteria. If your bag is fabric, toss it in the washing machine with jeans, and if it’s a plastic material, let it soak in a basin filled with soapy water and either the juice of half a lemon or about a quarter cup of vinegar.”

Ask your friends and family members how many of them regularly wash their reusable bags — ask how many folks ever have done any of the above steps — and you can intuit that a ban on plastic bags might not be the brightest idea.

San Francisco health officer Tomas Aragon reviewed Klick and Wright’s paper and found “a biologically plausible hypothesis” but “sloppy” research. “It’s a complicated topic. It’s a little surprising that (they) would put this out there without a peer review,” he added. If the professors had consulted with an epidemiologist, they would have understood how the city’s unique demographics contribute to specific intestinal issues. (Unlike Aragon, I’m trying to be delicate here and not share too much information.)

In short, the doctor concluded that the study raised more questions than it answered.

Dave Heylen of the California Grocers Association ripped the study for not understanding something really basic about how the San Francisco bag ban worked at first. “People weren’t using reusable bags,” Heylen said. “They were using paper bags.”

Be it noted, the grocers have supported proposals for a statewide ban on plastic bags — which would require supermarkets to charge for single-use bags — because they provide what the sponsor of Sacramento’s latest effort, Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, calls “uniformity of experience” for shoppers and store owners. (It also means big stores can charge for bags and blame the government.)

For his part, Klick told me he cannot “rule out the possibility that there was something peculiar that happened in San Francisco.” Maybe the cause isn’t the bag ban. That’s why there should be more studies that look into death rates and food-borne illness reports in the many communities — San Jose and San Mateo and Alameda counties, for example — that have passed bag laws since then-Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi introduced a bill to make San Francisco America’s first city to ban plastic bags.

Mayor Ed Lee’s office said the mayor will look into the health consequences of the city’s now tougher bag laws if Aragon so recommends. That doesn’t seem likely. Likewise, Levine didn’t sound particularly concerned.

Maybe they should be. More than 60 California communities have bag bans, which means more Californians are using reusable bags. Most families probably aren’t washing them. And that’s not healthy.

California politicians didn’t even bother studying the possible health effects of their anti-bag laws. They were in such a hurry to tell their constituents what’s best for them that they forgot to check how their busybody scheme might go wrong.

Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is dsaunders@sfchronicle.com

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