Don’t fall for 'robo call' campaign

A last-minute “robo call” campaign against a countywide plastic bag ban is an ugly attempt to bully local officials into changing their minds. They shouldn’t fall for it.

A recap: Over the weekend, many county residents received calls from a mysterious organization calling itself the Environmental Safety Alliance, warning that reusable bags can be harbingers of bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses. The calls urged opposition to the ban, which comes up for afinal vote today before the county Integrated Waste Manage ment Authority board.

We don’t know which is more despicable: That the calls are preying on public fears by portraying reusable bags as public health threats — never mind that many, many people have been using them for years, with no ill effects — or that no one will own up to bankrolling the effort.

There’s been widespread speculation that the plastic bag industry is funding this effort, as it has funded others. For example, the website http://www.bagtheban.com is a “project” of Hilex Poly, a manufacturer of plastic bags and film. The site includes information on bans proposed in communities around the nation, including San Luis Obispo.

But the Environmental Safety Alliance site isn’t nearly so forthcoming; numerous efforts to contact the organization went unanswered.

Tribune writer Bob Cuddy did reach two of the “doctors” featured in the robo calls, and they declined to say who, specifically, is funding the campaign.

Cuddy also found that one of the two doctors, Robert Johnson, is not a doctor of medicine or science at all, but a doctor of musical arts. He may be qualified to opine on Mozart or Bach, but does he have any authority to warn about the health perils of reusable grocery bags?

The other doctor Cuddy contacted is a medical doctor, and did share concerns that reusable bags can pose a health threat — if they’re not properly handled.

It is certainly true that bacteria can accumulate inside the bags. A 2010 study by scientists at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University — astudy funded by the American Chemistry Council — tested 84 reusable bags used by shoppers in California and Arizona. It found bacteria on all but one of those bags.

However, consider this critique of the study from Consumer Reports:

“The researchers tested for pathogenic bacteria salmonella and listeria, but didn’t find any, nor did they find strains of E. coli that could make one sick. They only found bacteria that don’t normally cause disease, but do cause disease in people with weakened immune systems. Our food-safety experts were underwhelmed as well. ‘A person eating an average bag of salad greens gets more exposure to these bacteria than if they had licked the insides of the dirtiest bag from this study,’ says Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist at Consumers Union.”

What’s more, the Arizona/Loma Linda study also found that washing reusable bags eliminated 99.9 percent of the bacteria. It also recommended not using grocery bags for other purposes, such as toting clothes to the gym. In other words, following a few simple, common-sense precautions can make reusable bags perfectly safe.

Implying that a ban on plastic bags will lead to massive outbreaks of illness is absurd. The county waste management board should send shady PR operatives a strong message that San Luis Obispo County won’t be swayed by such tactics. We urge the board to give final approval to the plastic bag ban today.