Plastic Water Bottles: How Safe are They?
by Cora Rivard, ND
The bottled water industry has enjoyed booming growth in the recent decade as an increasingly health conscious population sought the convenience and perceived “purity” in purchasing bottled water. Aside from questions about the source of many bottled “spring” water brands, (some of which simply come from filtered tap water), fewer required tests for contaminants as compared to municipal sources, and the greater expenses and environmental impact of increased plastic waste, another important question has surfaced in recent years: how safe are these plastic containers for our health?
Most bottled waters and sodas are contained in a type of plastic called, polyethylene terephthalate (PET). While widely deemed safe for human consumption as single use containers by industry standards, it is known that this form of plastic degrades over time with use. What is not widely known is that this type of plastic has been found to leach carcinogens, such as antimony and other toxins, into mineral water samples after only two to four weeks of storage at room temperatures.1,2,3 These levels are enough to cause genetic mutations in the roots of plants watered with these samples. Exposure to sunlight and increased temperatures significantly increases the level of mutagens leached into water. 4
In addition, many plastics include a chemical called, Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP), which helps to keep them flexible. It is present in plastic bottles, as well as many food storage plastics and plastic wraps. This chemical has been shown to be harmful to reproductive organs in rat models when consumed in high levels, as well as damaging to fetal development.5 The effect of long term, low level exposure to these chemicals is unknown.
What about those clear, hard plastic bottles? The plastic used in making many types of hard plastic bottles, most baby bottles, liners within food and beverage cans, as well as the large sized water cooler jugs in many offices, is called polycarbonate. In recent years it has been found that this type of plastic leaches small amounts of bisphenol A (BPA), which is a neurotoxic, estrogen-like chemical that can disrupt natural hormone functions in animal studies.6 When used at normal temperatures, leached amounts of BPA fall far below what is deemed toxic for human exposure. However, it has been found that when these plastics are exposed to hot water, through washing or storing hot liquids and foods, they can leach up to 55 times as much of this chemical! Because these plastics are everywhere in our environment, and studies have not been able to control for the compounded effects of low dose, chronic exposure to these substances over many years, it seems wise to reduce exposure as much as possible. Especially at a time when environmental contaminants which mimic estrogens could be contributing to our increasing incidences of cancers in reproductive organs, lowered sperm counts in men, and overall increase in endocrine disorders.
So how can you limit the exposure of potentially dangerous plastics to your family?
It is best to use glass or stainless steel bottles instead of plastic. When you do use plastic bottles, never store in hot temperatures or sunlight (don’t leave them in the care!), and don’t reuse- dispose the bottle into the correct recycling bin after a single use.
When shopping for baby bottles, make sure to purchase bottles labeled as “BPA-free.” Examples of brands which make BPA-free bottles include, “Born Free” and “Medela.”
With food storage, try to avoid purchasing items covered in plastic wraps or plastic containers. Hot temperatures and fatty foods in direct contact with the plastic will cause higher migration of contaminants. Some brands, like, “Saran Wrap” and “Glad Wrap” have changed their product so that they no longer contains BPA. Never put a plastic container into the microwave unless specifically designated as microwave safe. Taking these guidelines for use into consideration, the plastics least likely to leach when used as recommended, are numbered: #1, 2, 4 and 5.
1. Evandri, M., Tucci, P., Bolle, P. “Toxicological evaluation of commercial mineral water bottled in polyethylene terephthalate: a cytogenetic approach with Allium cepa.” Food Additives and Contaminants. 2000, Vol. 17,(12)1037-1045
2. De Fusco R, et al. “Leaching of mutagens into mineral water from polyethyleneterephthalate bottles.” Sci Total Environ. 1990 Jan;90:241-8.
3. EPA website on the health effects of antimony
4. Westerhoff, P, et al. “Antimony leaching from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic used for bottled drinking water.” Water Res. 2008 Feb;42(3):551-6. Epub 2007
5. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Department of Health and Human Services: Toxicologial Profile for Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP) Sept. 2002
6. Le, H., et al. “Bisphenol A is released from polycarbonate drinking bottles and mimics the neurotoxic actions of estrogen in developing cerebellar neurons.” Toxicology Letters. 2008 Jan 30;176(2):149-56.