Plastic water bottles are not only a blight on the environment, it turns out they’re bad for your health too. Did you know that chemicals found in the bottles and in plastic food containers and packaging can leach out into the contents?
Risks of Using Plastic Water Bottles
It sounds quite terrifying, something as innocent as taking a sip of water from a plastic bottle or heating food up in microwaveable plastic storage, something we do every day could be having an adverse effect on our health. But is it really as bad we are led to believe?
The main target for criticism is Bisphenol A (BPA), an organic synthetic compound widely used as a starting material in plastics. The suggestion is that it seeps out of the bottle into the water and causes issues such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and cancer, amongst many others. The chemical is an endocrine disruptor which mimics the effect of oestrogen in the human body. Critics suggest this can make it harder to conceive and that its presences in children’s’ products - including feeding bottles - causes adverse effects in children. Despite plastics undergoing rigorous testing to ensure they abide by legislation, the use of BPA has been banned in many countries, especially where used in children’s products, with many manufacturers replacing it with chemicals such as fluroene-9-bisphenol (BHBP).
Studies on Effects of Bisphenol A
However, much of the research into BPA and its effects have focused on rodents using very high doses, much higher than any human is likely to be exposed to and higher than the safe level recommended by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Such studies do not accurately reflect human exposure, and as a result many bodies, including Cancer Research UK, state that there is no good scientific evidence that using plastic bottles or containers cause cancer, or other diseases.
The EFSA recently lowered the safe level of BPA from 50µg per kilo of bodyweight per day (µg/kg of bw/day) to 4 µg/kg of bw/day because of reservations around its possible health effects on mammary glands and reproductive, metabolic, neurobehavioral and immune systems. However, the levels of BPA and other chemicals entering food and drink from containers are much lower than those considered safe. Following a full scientific review into BPA in 2015, the EFSA concluded there was no health risk to people of any age including unborn children at current BPA exposure levels. Their advice is due to be updated in 2018.
Read more: Types of equipment used to test chemical components and properties in water samples
Microplastics in Drinking Water
Microplastics is a term thrown around quite a lot at the moment, especially in relation to the ocean, but recent research has suggested that these small pieces of plastic – which are less than 5mm long – could also be found in our bottled water.
Early in 2018, the World Health Organisation (WHO) launched a health review after microplastics in the form of plastic fibres were found in 93% of popular bottled water brands. Research from the State University of New York in Fredonia analysed 259 bottles from 19 locations in nine countries and 11 different brands and found, in some instances, the levels of plastic fibres in bottled water were double those found in tap water in a previous study.
Analysis of the bottled water revealed an average of 10.4 microplastic particles larger than 100um per liter of water which was confirmed by FTIR spectroscopic analysis, and an average of 325 smaller particles sized 6.5-100um per liter. The latter were discovered using Nile Red dye, which adheres to plastic particles, causing them to fluoresce. Polypropylene, a plastic used to make bottle tops, was the most common fragment found (in 54% of cases) while 4% of samples showed the presence of industrial lubricants.
The study is, as yet, unpublished, has not been through the rigorous process of peer review, and has been widely criticised by drinks manufacturers who say they have strict filtration methods while also acknowledging it would be impossible to keep products free of plastic fibres because of their ubiquity.
A second, unrelated study analysed 19 bottles of water and found the presence plastic microfibres were widespread. Scientists here contributed their incidence to the ability of microfibres to become easily airborne and suggested they could have come from people’s clothing, fans within the building or a number of other sources.
Are plastic alternatives causing more harm than good?
While research into plastic microfibres in limited, it is worrying to think that consumers could be paying a premium for bottled water which could inadvertently be harming their health. Research into BPA is much more substantial, but possibly misleading and its use is likely to remain a contentious issue for quite some time. Its no bad thing to cut down on our use of plastics and look for alternatives, not only for the environment but potentially for our health too. It’s likely that other factors such as diet have a more important role in disease occurrence and progression rather than what our food and drink is stored in.
References and Further Reading
- Synthetic polymer contamination in bottle water| via BBC News
- WHO launches health review after microplastics found in 90% of bottled water
- Is your plastic water bottle bad for your health?
- Do plastic bottles or food containers cause cancer?