How many people die from reusable grocery bags?

5.5 per year in the county of San Francisco.

Plus a large increase in the number of ER visits.

That is the statistical conclusion from the Grocery Bag Bans and Foodborne Illness study by Professors Klick and Wright. You can download the study for yourself at the link in the previous sentence.

(Why is this post here instead of one of my other blogs since it is a bit off-topic from the focus here? Two reasons. First, my unintended consequence discussion is on this blog. Second, this illustrates the concept of unintended consequence which has huge implications for the missions community.)

In his article The Disgusting Consequence of Plastic-Bag Bans, Ramesh Ponnuru summarizes the study as follows:

Jonathan Klick and Joshua Wright, who are law professors at the University of Pennsylvania and George Mason University, respectively, have done a more recent study on the public-health impact of plastic-bag bans. They find that emergency-room admissions related to E. coli infections increased in San Francisco after the ban. (Nearby counties did not show this increase.) And this effect showed up as soon as the ban was implemented. (“There is a clear discontinuity at the time of adoption.”) The San Francisco ban was also associated with increases in salmonella and other bacterial infections. Similar effects were found in other California towns that adopted such laws.

Check out just a few of the comments in the study. This is from their conclusion:

We examine deaths and emergency room admissions related to these bacteria in the wake of the San Francisco ban. We find that both deaths and ER visits spiked as soon as the ban went into effect. Relative to other counties, deaths in San Francisco increase by almost 50 percent, and ER visits increase by a comparable amount.

Here is more explanation of the fatalities:

We find that the San Francisco County ban is associated with a 46 percent increase in deaths from foodborne illnesses. This implies an increase of 5.5 annual deaths for the county.

They compared the illness and fatalities before & after the ban and looked at neighboring counties to support their conclusion.

If you are an accountant or statistician, you will love reading the study. Everyone else? Be forewarned it’s complex.

In this comment, the look at the tradeoff in birds and animals saved by the ban with the human fatalities caused by the ban:

A precise valuation of the environmental benefits is hard to come by. However, many advocacy groups suggest that plastic refuse (from all sources, not just bags)7 kills 1 million birds and 100,000 other aquatic animals annually. A conservative estimate is that global plastic bag use is at least 500 billion bags annually, of which 180 million were used in San Francisco prior to the ban.8 If we assume that a jurisdiction’s “share” of animal deaths is proportionate to bag use, and we ignore all other sources of plastic, this suggests that San Francisco’s annual contribution to animal deaths is on the order of 400 birds and marine animals. This implies a break even valuation of each animal of about $87,500.

If you read that carefully, you will find some major assumptions that overstate the number of bird deaths caused by plastic bags which would make the human death tradeoff worse.

Let me summarize that comment for you:

  • Estimated 400 birds and animals survive – breaking that down shows 360 birds and 40 animals.
  • Estimated increase of 5.5 human fatalities
  • One human life is equal to 65 birds and 7 animals.
  • That does not include the increased ER visits and associated medical costs. If those factors were included the tradeoff would be much less than 65 birds for one human.

The professors and other economists can explain to you that is a poor cost-benefit tradeoff. As an accountant, I understand their explanation.

Let me put that in a little more emotional terms. Five people are dying in San Francisco county every year and others are getting extremely sick so some birds survive. 

Could someone explain to me the morality of giving up one human life in return for 40 or 50 or 60 birds?

4 thoughts on “How many people die from reusable grocery bags?

  1. Any action is going to have positive and negative consequences. This is anecdotal, but a shift from the use of disposable dishes to real dishes will result in an increase in the consumption of water required to wash these dishes after every use. Obviously there is also a decrease in the number of trees felled to make disposable dishes, but the trade-off has to be measured (I don’t know if someone has measured that yet).

    Things can get especially touchy if you’re talking about positive and negative consequences for human lives (or, if you’re a PETA member, for animal lives). We are uncomfortable with putting a value on a human live, whether monetary or via some other factor. But at the end of the day, if some of us claim to be “pro-life,” how pro-life are we? Will we spend $100,000 to save a dying person? $1 million dollars? $1 billion dollars? The questions are uncomfortable (at least to a layperson such as myself).

    1. Good point.

      That is where it gets real messy. The people who know how to study such things can calculate the expected reduction in mortality from a specific step in eliminating particulates in smokestack emissions. Is it worth however many billions nationwide if the expected reduction of each death is $1,000,000? How about $10 million? 100 million?

      That’s where this particular study is quite helpful. I can easily describe my conclusion on trading off one expected human life for 60 expected bird lives.

  2. Almost all of the deaths counted in this study were from C. Difficile, a hospital or institutional acquired infection often the result of antibiotics killing beneficial intestinal bacteria. A careful analysis of the CDC data shows only1 E. Coli death during the time period of the study.

    This is a good lesson in how what appears to be a “significant” statistical result can just be an anomaly.

    1. Jon:

      I am neither a statistician nor medical researcher. I did however go back and reread the study. The narrative in the first dozen pages is talking about e. coli specifically and coliform bacteria in general.

      Figure 1 tracks the number of ER visits for E. Coli in San Francisco county by quarter. Figure 2 tracks E. Coli visits in neighboring counties. There is a starkly noticeable flat line in the surrounding counties after the ban implementation. There is a sharp rise in E. Coli visits after implementation. To round out the graphs, it is running around 40 visits per quarter before the ban and about 60 per quarter after.

      The statistics is table 3 and 4 are beyond me. The conclusion is the existence of a statistically significant increase in the rate of ER admissions for E. Coli in San Francisco caused by the plastic bag ban. I understand stats enough to know that comment means the ban caused illnesses.

      Here is a comment following table 7, showing the death stats. The table is again beyond my understanding, but this comment I get:

      “The results concerning deaths are very similar to the ER results provided above. They are also very consistent across the different sample restrictions, suggesting a relative increase of at least 45 percent. Given that there were 12 deaths from intestinal infections in San Francisco County in the year before the plastic bag ban was implemented, this implies an increase of 5.4 additional deaths each year that can be attributed to the ban.”

      I don’t see any support for your comment in the study. I have no idea how many deaths were from E. Coli and how many from other coliform bacterial. The extensive discussion in the study runs counter to the suggest that people got their intestinal illness from the hospital after they entered the ER.

      Thanks for your comment, but I’ll go with the statistical conclusions in the study. The conclusion? Plastic bag bans kill people.

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