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Mailbag: Being environmentally friendly has trade-offs

February 15, 2013

Editor's note: The Coastline Pilot learned after publication that portions of this letter previously appeared on a website, powerlineblog.com,. The letter writer said he collaborated on the piece with another writer, who sent it to various blogs.

I was talking to some of my "environmentally correct" friends recently about the new research from George Mason's Josh Wright and Penn State's Jonathan Klick on the adverse health trade-offs of plastic bag bans.

Wright and Klick have performed the simple task of comparing before-and-after rates for food-borne illness in counties that enacted plastic bag bans and adjacent counties that didn't. The results aren't even close: Counties that enact plastic bag bans see a sharp spike in hospitalizations for food-borne illness, much of it generated from reusable cloth bags that gather bacterial growths from raw food.

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From the abstract: "San Francisco County was the first major U.S. jurisdiction to enact such a regulation, implementing a ban in 2007. There is evidence, however, that reusable grocery bags, a common substitute for plastic bags, contain potentially harmful bacteria. We examine emergency room admissions related to these bacteria in the wake of the San Francisco ban. We find that ER visits spiked when the ban went into effect. Relative to other counties, ER admissions increase by at least one fourth, and deaths exhibit a similar increase."

I'll summarize here:

Klick and Wright estimate that the San Francisco ban results in a 46% increase in deaths from food-borne illnesses, or 5.5 more of them each year. They then run through a cost-benefit analysis employing the same estimate of the value of a human life that the Environmental Protection Agency uses when evaluating regulations that are supposed to save lives. They conclude that the anti-plastic-bag policies can't pass the test — and that's before counting the higher healthcare costs they generate.

Simple, the bag banners say: Just get people to start washing their reusable bags. OK, fine, but if public education is the remedy, why isn't that same remedy used for the purported evils of plastic bags, which are recyclable? I always recycled mine, and also used them for a variety of secondary uses.

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