A Little Poison With Your Plastic?

Polycarbonate plastic bottles pulled from shelves over health concerns

A Little Poison With Your Plastic?

A popular type of plastic bottle may be seeping dangerous chemicals into its contents, and concerns over the health consequences appear to be overflowing. Polycarbonate plastic bottles are being pulled from the shelves of many U.S. retailers, Canada is considering a national ban, and the plastic's most prominent manufacturer, Nal­gene, has announced it will phase out all products made with the chemical in question, bisphenol A (BPA).

Nalgene's bottles, which have helped make the company a household name, are popular for their clear, hard, and virtually unbreakable composition. They have become a ubiquitous outdoor accessory, widely regarded as a responsible alternative to buying bottled water. Other manufacturers make similar outdoor and baby bottles using polycarbonate plastic. The material, also sometimes known as Lexan, is marked with the recycling label No. 7 (though not all No. 7 plastics are polycarbonate).

The National Institute of Environmental Health Science's National Toxicology Program, addressing BPA's health risks, reported last month that there is "some concern for neural and behavioral effects in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures," warranting a "higher level of concern" than those expressed by a previous expert panel. Studies also suggest that BPA mimics estrogen, messing with hormone levels and cell signaling systems, while higher exposure levels carry greater risks of uterine fibroids, breast cancer, decreased sperm counts, and prostate cancer. "Recognizing the lack of data on the effects of bisphenol A in humans and despite the limitations in the evidence for 'low' dose effects in laboratory animals," the report concluded, "the possibility that bisphenol A may alter human development cannot be dismissed."

According to Nalgene's website, the company is phasing out its Outdoor line of polycarbonate containers "in response to consumer demand." Last month a California mom sued Nalgene's parent company, Nalge Nunc International, alleging that for years they've continued to sell the bottles while downplaying the risks identified in several studies. Canadian retailer Mountain Equip­ment Co-op removed Nalgene and other polycarbonate bottles from stores last Decem­ber. In April, Wal-Mart and Toys "R" Us announced they would quit selling baby bottles with BPA.

Austin-based Whole Earth Provision Co. pulled all BPA-containing bottles from its shelves last month, as well. General merchandise manager Kathy McCarley said that before discontinuing sales of the bottles, they'd been aware of the concerns for several months and offered customers a BPA fact sheet with links to studies. McCarley said the store will likely offer Nalgene's reformulated non-BPA bottles when they're released. Meanwhile, she's trying to figure out what to do with her existing stock.

Brent Perdue of local recycler Ecology Action said folks can recycle their old Nalgenes, along with any plastic containers labeled Nos. 1-7, at EA's Downtown location. "If chemicals from oil-based plastic products don't seep into your body, they'll eventually seep into the ecosystem, so we tell people to avoid them entirely," Perdue said. Asked for alternatives, he suggested reusing glass bottles or buying one of the many long-lasting stainless steel bottles now offered.

To minimize overall BPA exposure, the National Toxicology Program recommends reducing your use of aluminum canned foods (whose liners can contain BPA); opting for glass, porcelain, or stainless steel containers, particularly for hot food or liquids; and using BPA-free baby bottles.

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plastic bottles, polycarbonate, bisphenol A, Nalgene, Whole Earth Provision Co., Ecology Action

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