Are plastic water bottles a health hazard?

A Q&A with EarthTalk, republished with permission.

Q. Are the rumors true that refilling and reusing some types of plastic bottles can cause health problems?                       

– Regina Fujan, Lincoln, NE

A. Most types of plastic bottles are safe to reuse at least a few times if properly washed with hot soapy water. But recent revelations about chemicals in Lexan (plastic #7) bottles are enough to scare even the most committed environmentalists out of reusing them (or buying them in the first place).

Studies have indicated that food and drinks stored in such containers—including those ubiquitous clear Nalgene water bottles hanging from just about every hiker’s backpack—can contain trace amount of Bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic chemical that interferes with the body’s natural hormonal messaging system.

The same studies found that repeated re-use of such bottles—which get dinged up through normal wear and tear and while being washed—increases the chance that chemicals will leak out of the tiny cracks and crevices that develop over time.

According to the Environment California Research & Policy Center, which reviewed 130 studies on the topic, BPA has been linked to breast and uterine cancer, an increased risk of miscarriage, and decreased testosterone levels. BPA can also wreak havoc on children’s developing systems. (Parents beware: Most baby bottles and sippy cups are made with plastics containing BPA.)

Most experts agree that the amount of BPA that could leach into food and drinks through normal handling is probably very small, but there are concerns about the cumulative effect of small doses.

Health advocates also recommend not reusing bottles made from plastic #1 (polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PET or PETE), including most single-use water, soda and juice bottles. According to The Green Guide, such bottles may be safe for one-time use, but reuse should be avoided because studies indicate they may leach DEHP—another probable human carcinogen—when they are in less than perfect condition.

The good news is that such bottles are easy to recycle; just about every municipal recycling system will take them back. But using them is nonetheless far from environmentally responsible: The nonprofit Berkeley Ecology Center found that the manufacture of plastic #1 uses large amounts of energy and resources and generates toxic emissions and pollutants that contribute to global warming. And even though PET bottles can be recycled, millions find their way into landfills every day in the U.S. alone.

Another bad choice for water bottles, reusable or otherwise, is plastic #3 (polyvinyl chloride/PVC), which can leach hormone-disrupting chemicals into the liquids they are storing and will release synthetic carcinogens into the environment when incinerated. Plastic #6 (polystyrene/PS) has been shown to leach styrene, a probable human carcinogen, into food and drinks as well.

Safer choices include bottles crafted from safer HDPE (plastic #2), low-density polyethylene (LDPE, AKA plastic #4) or polypropylene (PP, or plastic #5). Consumers may have a hard time finding water bottles made out of #4 or #5, however. Aluminum and stainless steel water bottles are also safer choices and can be reused repeatedly and eventually recycled.


GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION?

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Comments

LivingLaVidaVerde
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Joined: 04/09/2009

I was scared off of plastic and metal water bottles so much that I decided to try out glass bottles. I love it! It tastes clean and fresh and it's very sturdy too. We started selling them at our green website: http://livinglavidaverde.net/store.aspx. If you don't buy from us, please at least stop using plastic water bottles...it just doesn't seem safe!

kayden
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User offline. Last seen 4 years 43 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 10/31/2009

Glass is definitely the way to go!! Please do not support the plastic water bottle industry. Reusable glass bottles are so hip and it just feels way better to drink from glass. Definitely no leaching. I too offer beautiful bottleware, www.symblueology.com which are sandblasted cobalt blue glass bottles with flip-top lids and positive symbols. Check them out, they are made with thick glass, difficult to break. And you can make Solar Blue Water with them!! Love your Water!!

jonahclint
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Joined: 05/19/2010

Most people don't even know that plastic bottles could present a health hazard for them. I prefer using only glass or metal recipients and I never reuse plastic bottles.

Elijah Hamilton
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Joined: 02/02/2011

This is a good article. Thanks for it!

pedeleao
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Joined: 03/14/2011

I think you meant DEHA - di(2-ethylhexyl) adipate. There was such a study, but it was found to be in error, because DEHA plays no role in the manufacture of PET bottles, nor is it possible that it could leech from PET. It is a common plasticizer, so it's likely that the source was some plastic item in the lab that contaminated the experiment. This is further confirmed by that fact that his results were inconsistent. There's also no evidence that DEHA is carcinogenic, nor is it regulated by the FDA. At one point the FDA suspected it to be, but later they were unable to find any evidence to support the suspicion. Thus the DEHA scare is just another myth.

At this time there is no evidence that PET bottles pose any health risk through leeching. The only risk that arises from reuse is the possibility of bacterial contamination if the bottle isn't washed well, but that has nothing to do with the plastic itself.

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