Text by West Coast Editor Steve Casimiro
Nalgene, the largest manufacturer of outdoor water bottles, announced today that it will stop selling bottles made of polycarbonate. Polycarbonate contains a manmade chemical called bisphenol A (BPA), which leaches from the plastic at levels dramatically higher than previously thought.
The chemical has been linked to breast and prostrate cancer, brain damage, and disruptions of the endocrine system. While there have been worries over BPA in water bottles for years, the evidence is now clear and compelling: You should ditch your polycarbonate bottles and use something free of BPA, such as stainless steel or a new, BPA-safe plastic called Tritan.
Nalgene’s decision to stop selling bottles with bisphenol A came after years of defending polycarbonate. “Based on all available scientific evidence,” said Nalgene’s general manager Steven Silverman, “we continue to believe that Nalgene products containing BPA are safe for their intended use. However, our customers indicated they preferred BPA-free alternatives, and we acted in response to those concerns.”
The Latest Developments
This morning, Health Canada, a cross between the Surgeon General and Food and Drug Administration, declared that BPA is dangerous to humans—and is the first government agency to do so. It’s also seeking to ban BPA in bottles for infants and toddlers. Here in the U.S., the National Institutes of Health said on Tuesday that BPA can be linked to breast cancer and the earlier onset of puberty in girls and that harm to people “cannot be dismissed.”
What’s more, a study from California published in April shows that BPA directly alters genes in breast cells so that they resemble cancer cells and, while couched in cautious scientific language, the study implies BPA can actually cause aggressive cancers. Earlier this year, in the first direct test for bisphenol A migration in water bottles, University of Cincinnati scientists found that BPA leaches from polycarbonate containers at room temperature whether the bottle is old or new. More alarming, when the bottle has hot water in it, the chemical is released up to 55 times faster.
BPA Is Everywhere
You know how it seems there are Starbuck’s everywhere? BPA is like that, but even more so. As one of the world’s most widely used chemicals, good luck avoiding it. It’s in baby bottles, the lining of aluminum cans, CDs and DVDs, dental sealants, sunglass lenses, water pipes, and, of course, outdoor water bottles. In 2004, the U.S. produced 2.2 billion pounds of the stuff. It’s so pervasive, 90 percent of Americans over age six have it in their bodies.
The Creepy History of BPA
BPA first landed in the headlines in 2003 when a genetics researcher found that chromosomal mutations in mice jumped from 1-2 percent to 40 percent when they were kept in cages made of polycarbonate. Dozens of studies have linked bisphenol A to health problems in animals, but the chemical industry has strongly fought attempts to label it a danger.
The FDA continues to list it as safe, but some of its rulings were based on studies financed by the American Plastics Council. BPA advocates argue that exposure to the chemical comes in such low doses that it’s harmless to humans. However, bisphenol A mimics estrogen, which is active in much smaller concentrations, so even low doses make animals sick.
“There is a large body of scientific evidence demonstrating the harmful effects of very small amounts of BPA in laboratory and animal studies,” said Scott Belcher, the University of Cincinnati pharmacologist who led the water bottle study, “but little clinical evidence related to humans. There is a very strong suspicion in the scientific community, however, that this chemical has harmful effects on humans.”
Distrustful of corporate and government reassurances, consumers have been demanding alternatives from retailers and pressuring regulators—at least in Canada—to revisit the safety of BPA. Patagonia removed BPA products from its 40 stores in 2005. Back in December, Mountain Equipment Co-op (the “Canadian REI”) pulled all food containers containing bisphenol A after concerns from its customers.
On Tuesday, a leak to the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper on Health Canada’s upcoming ruling on BPA caused a stampede of retailers across Canada to remove BPA products from their shelves, including Wal-Mart and Forzani, Canada’s largest sporting goods chain. In the U.S., REI today told its stores to pull polycarbonate water bottles from shelves and the chain is ending online sales. Other retailers in the States have been slower to move. Wal-Mart’s U.S. stores, for example, will remove bisphenol A products—but not until early 2009.
A BPA Case Study
The University of Cincinnati study was the first to look at water bottles directly in “real world use.” Belcher, a climber who recently returned from an expedition in Pakistan, was prompted in part by watching fellow expedition members carrying bottles of hot water into their sleeping bags to stay warm. When he returned, he gathered new and used Nalgene bottles from a local climbing gym and tested them hourly over the course of a week, with water both at room temperature and boiling.
The results showed BPA migrating into the water at a rate of 0.2 to 0.8 nanograms an hour at room temp and up to 32 nanograms an hour with hot water. Also, after the “boiled” bottles were cooled, emptied, cleaned, and filled with room temperature water, the BPA migration level was still elevated beyond what it had been before the hot water.
The media response has focused on the dramatically increased leaching in hot water, but, Belcher said, “One of the points that hasn’t come across is that even at room temperature, there is bisphenol coming out. It’s unequivocal.”
Asked if that means people should avoid ingesting BPA wherever possible, he said, “That would be a fair conclusion, especially knowing that everybody in Western nations already has levels of bisphenol in their bodies that are shown to be harmful in lab animals.”
A Titan Alternative?
Polycarbonate hasn’t been so easy to give up, though. It’s a remarkably resilient material, almost unbreakable, but like glass is clear and immune from taking on the taste of whatever’s in it. And you can’t make polycarbonate without bisphenol A, said Camelbak’s product manager for bottles, Dave Carr. “It would be like trying to make a steel bike without steel.”
Until just a few months ago, the main alternatives to polycarbonate water bottles were stainless steel or high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bottles, but a new co-polyester plastic from Eastman Chemical—Tritan—came on the market last fall. It was immediately adopted by Camelbak and today all the company’s bottles are BPA-free. When Nalgene offered non-BPA water bottles for the first time last week, they also were made of Tritan.
But given the developments with polycarbonate, what’s to say problems won’t pop up with Tritan?
Camelbak’s Carr said, “I asked the same question. We went through a series of different regulatory tests with this material. We didn’t just rely on the United States. Japan, Europe’s food safey agency…there are even more restrictive agencies in Germany and California than the FDA. There’s a laundry list of all known toxins and whatever you’re considering goes against all of them. Tritan passes all of those tests.”
For now, there’s an alternative. But given the success of the public in flushing out the dangers of BPA, let’s hope the same scrutiny is given to Tritan.
NEED TO KNOW
IS BPA SAFE?
Please. Let’s use some common sense here. With billions of dollars at stake, corporations, government, and scientists are wrangling over the definition of “safe.” And while human-bisphenol studies are few, this week’s NIH report noted that BPA shows “association” with “higher levels of testosterone in men and women, recurrent miscarriage, and chromosomal defects in fetuses”. Does that sound safe to you? Especially when the solution is a new BPA-free water bottle that costs less than 15 bucks? I don’t think so.
HOW DO I KNOW IF MY BOTTLE HAS BISPHENOL A IN IT?
Look on the bottom of the bottle for a number surrounded by three arrows. Polycarbonate bottles are categorized as number seven. Note that seven is the catchall “other” category for plastics—all polycarbonates are seven, not all sevens are polycarbonates.
WHERE DO I BUY A BPA-FREE BOTTLE?
REI has the new Tritan Camelbak bottles and BPA-free Nalgenes in all its stores. Elsewhere, stainless steel bottles from Guyot, Klean Kanteen, and Sigg are options, too.
WHAT ABOUT OTHER PLASTIC BOTTLES?
Nalgene’s old-school bottles, milky colored and soft sided, are made of high-density polyethylene and free of BPA. Thin-walled, soft plastic bottles like Evian uses are plain old polyethylene.
I’M A TOTAL GEEK. WHAT DO ALL THE NUMBERS MEAN?
1—polyethylene tetephtalate (PET)
2—high density polyethylene (HDPE)
3—polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
4—low density polyethylene (LDPE)
7—other (polycarbonate, fiberglass, nylon, more)