A reusable grocery bag played a central role in spreading a stomach bug among teenage girls at a recent soccer tournament in Washington state, a study finds.
The bag had been stored in a hotel bathroom where one of the girls became ill. The next day, the sick girl went home, but the not-so-clean bag was used to deliver cookies and other snacks to the soccer team.
Although the sick girl never touched the bag and didn't have contact with members of her team after her symptoms, seven other girls became sick after eating the snacks.
After testing the bag, the researchers found traces of norovirus, the most common cause of foodborne illness in the United States. The virus on the bag was the same one that had sickened the girls.
While scientists knew norovirus was capable of aerosolizing, the study is the first to show that an object contaminated with aerosolized particles can be transported and make other people sick, said study researcher Kimberly Repp of Oregon Health and Science University.
The findings highlight the role inanimate objects can play in spreading norovirus, a highly contagious virus, the researchers said.
"When somebody becomes ill, we need to not just think about wiping down the toilet, we need to think about everything in that room," including toothbrushes and hairbrushes, said Repp, from the university's Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine.
When the first member of the soccer team was sick, virus particles in her vomit and feces became airborne and settled on objects in the bathroom, including the reusable grocery bag, the researchers said. Aerosolization of the virus can especially cause problems in confined spaces, such as cruise ships and nursing homes, Reppsaid. The virus can become airborne even when a toilet is flushed.
The researchers recommended that, if possible, a person sick with norovirus use a bathroom separate from the ones used by other members of the household or party. After the illness, the bathroom, and objects in it, should be thoroughly disinfected, the researchers added.
The study also "illustrates one of the less obvious hazards of reusable grocery bags," the researchers wrote in the May 9 issue of the Journal of Infectious Diseases.
"We don’t really think about cleaning our reusable bags," Repp said. But they could become contaminated, for instance, by raw meat placed in the bag.
"We clean our clothes when they're dirty; we should clean our grocery bags when they're dirty, too," Repp said.
Pass it on: A person sick with norovirus can contaminate objects in the room without touching them, and others can become sick from contact with these objects.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.