Unsafe Chemicals in Popular Plastic Water Bottles?

CNN has an article up about a possibly harmful chemical that is found in a popular style of water bottle, one I’ve seen many of our soccer players using. These water bottles are very durable, don’t flex like polyethylene, come in a wide variety of cool colors, and are able to withstand extreme temperatures. The water bottles are made from polycarbonate and contain a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA). BPA is known to disrupt the body’s hormonal system, but researchers are unsure if the amounts that leech out into the stored liquids are enough to cause problems:

There is little dispute that the chemical can disrupt the hormonal system, but scientists differ markedly on whether very low doses found in food and beverage containers can be harmful. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration sides with the plastics industry that BPA-based products do not pose a health risk.

However, an expert panel of researchers reported at a U.S. government conference that the potential for BPA to affect human health is a concern, and more research is needed. The panel cited evidence that Americans have levels of BPA higher than those found to cause harm in lab animals.

Patagonia Inc., another outdoor-gear retailer based in Ventura, California, pulled polycarbonate water bottles from its 40 stores worldwide in December 2005. A month later, organic foods chain Whole Foods Markets stopped selling polycarbonate baby bottles and child drinking cups.

Some environmental groups in the United States and Canada expect others will soon follow suit.

These are very popular items – I see them all the time on our soccer fields.

The article goes on to say that while the US EPA and plastic industry trade groups are convinced the compound is safe, many other international agencies and researchers aren’t so sure. Many retailers in Canada have been removing BPA based products from their shelves.

One of the larger producers of these bottles is Nalgene. They make many products out of polycarbonate with BPA including water bottles, sippy cups for toddlers, and more. Aware of the growing concern over BPA, they have a prominent web page about BPA available for concerned consumers:

As a responsible manufacturer of polycarbonate consumer products, Nalge Nunc International has monitored scientific research concerning the safety of our products including Bisphenol-A for many years.

Based on the findings of the Food and Drug Administration, The Environmental Protection Agency, The American Plastics Council and other reliable sources from around the world, we continue to firmly believe in the safety of our products.

Color me skeptical when they cite the EPA (which hasn’t exactly been looking out for the public’s and environment’s best interests these past few years) and an industry trade group (The American Plastics Council). But at least they acknowledge there are concerns. I personally don’t trust anything the American Plastics Council says because the conflict of interest is too great.

Unlike other ‘a study was just released – we’re all gonna die!’ articles, this one was well written and balanced. Clearly there are concerns – but the main thing it said was the researchers are concerned based on recent findings and feel more research in needed. Meanwhile they provide plenty of information to let people try and decide what to do. They weren’t screaming that the sky is falling.

So what should concerned parents do? Clearly the compound is dangerous in low doses. There is little hard data about how much leeches out into stored contents from containers. Yet Americans have high levels of this compound in our bodies – clearly some is leeching out of storage products somewhere.

You know, with all the hazards floating around our families, from lead in toys to pollution in the air, if it’s not BPA, it’s something else. Yet the compound clearly poses some sort of risk and polycarbonate water bottles are not the only type of bottle available. You can get bottles made out of other plastics, aluminum, or with stainless steel liners. So why take the risk? Our family has one Nalgene water bottle in regular use with our 5 year old. The older ones have come to really like Coleman’s 1/2 gallon polyethylene jugs because they keep water cooler longer and store more. It’s not going to be a big deal for us to stop using the Nalgene water bottle. We’ll come up with an alternative. Why risk it­?

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  1. Interesting read and something I hadn’t considered but it does make sense. Polycarbonate is a co-polymer, so it’s made up of two compounds which are chemically linked in a repeating fashion (A-B-A-B-A etc.). This means that the ratio has to be 1:1 or else there will be left overs of at least one chemical. I can’t remember what the other chemical is but hopefully it’s less toxic.

    As you said, even if the process is as safe as they say, it’s better to just avoid it. The polyethylene, polypropylene and PET bottles are safe alternatives. The main concern then becomes a matter of cleaning them well after use (preventing bacteria from building up).