Are poisonous water bottles an urban myth, marketing tool, or...?

It’s a well-known (or, at least, oft-repeated) fact that bottled water in plastic bottles is not safe to drink after a few months or years, because PCB leeches out of the bottles into the water. Personally, I’m beginning to think this is BS. My questions:

  1. Why would the FDA allow this? Of all the government agencies, I think the FDA is the best thing to happen since sliced bread. If there was any chance that the container of any food item is harmful to people, why on earth would they allow it to be used?

  2. Is it an urban legend perpetuated by the water companies (or stupid people) to prevent people from re-using the bottles with tap water or filtered water and thus be forced to buy more bottled water?


I never heard this. Do you have some reference that makes this claim?

Here’s one:

EDIT: Actually, that doesn’t say anything about leaching over time, as mentioned in the first post.

True story: I’ve seen these warnings on bottles too, so I got up to grab a friend’s bottle of Aquafina and transcribe the warning, but it’s not there! So I went to another bottle, and another and the warning is nowhere to be found! She theorizes it’s because they’re using these new-fangled thin bottles that use less plastic, therefore now the chemicals are somehow okay(?).

So in other words, I don’t have an answer to your question, Hal. Sorry.

Edit: Actually, even though I’ve seen the “Do Not Reuse” warnings, I don’t recall them ever saying anything about why they are not to be reused. That’s the answer I’ve always gotten from people when I ask why I’m not supposed to reuse the bottles.

Yeah, I assumed it was just some email spam thing, but I did look it up after posting.

Snopes claims that there are both true and false elements to the claim, depending on what type of bottles are being referenced. Here is the Snopes link.

You seem to be under the impression that the FDA actually knows everything that is harmful to us. If only that were true, and if only companies were allowed to only use chemicals that are proved to be safe.

You have the story garbled. Many water bottles and other plastic containers are made of polycarbonate, a plastic which incorporates bisphenol-A in its structure. Trace amounts of bisphenol-A can leach from these bottles during long-term storage, or during heating. BPA is an endocrine disrupter, and has numerous known health effects in animals, but its toxicity in humans is not well characterized. BPA is ubiquitous in modern society, as it’s also used in the plastic linings of canned foods, the coatings on carbonless copy paper and thermal paper, and in many other applications.

And the FDA allows it because they’re reluctant to disrupt such huge sectors of the economy without more clear and convincing evidence. Both FDA and EPA have expressed concern about BPA, and many states have banned BPA or are considering it.

PCBs have been banned in the U.S. since 1979. While PCBs were used as plasticisers in paints and cements until such open use was banned in 1973, I’ve never heard of PCBs used for plastic water bottles.

Oh, and the word is “leaches.” These are leeches. :wink:

First, to be clear, recent concerns of plastic bottles and “PCBs” involve polycarbonates, not polychlorinated biphenyls. The former are legal in the United States, but now banned in Canada; the latter have been banned in the U.S. and elsewhere for years. “PCB” has apparently been used in some circles as an abbreviation either for “polycarbonate” or perhaps “polycarbonate bottle.”

Well, the FDA is not immune to political pressure.

Sometimes the science is just inadequate, and establishing adequate science is itself a process subject to political pressure.

In the case of bisphenol A, used in polycarbonate bottles as well as plastic linings of cans, the FDA said in 2008 that BPA was safe. The political environment has since shifted, and the science has progressed a little as well: the FDA now says there’s cause for “some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children,” and that the “FDA is supporting a shift to a more robust regulatory framework for oversight of BPA.”

The FDA is a big bureaucracy, and as such is going to be slow to change direction. They tend to follow the science eventually, but their official pronouncements at any given time are going to be the most conservative, non-boat-rocking interpretations of where the science is at that time. Away from the official FDA pages, the people leading the ongoing investigation recommend avoiding it.

To say that Polycarbonates have been banned in Canada is a bit of a reach. From your link:

Canadian Health Minister Tony Clement announced yesterday that Bisphenol A would be listed as a toxic substance and banned the use of polycarbonate plastic baby bottles.

Except that the OP wasn’t (primarily) referring to polycarbonate bottles. He was referring to bottled water, which are made out of PET (polyethylene terephthalate). These sorts of plastics also use pthalates as a plasticizer, and there’s some concern that phthalates can act as endocrine disruptors. Manufacturers have voluntarily removed phthalates from products for small children (like pacifiers and bottles), partly as an act of goodwill to stave off further regulation in other products.

Of course, even if some particular plasticizer is identified as harmful (be it phthalates or BPA), it’s not like plastics manufacturers can simply remove it and have a useful product. Without the plasticizers, you get extremely brittle products, which would be simply useless. So a manufacturer will replace BPA with some other plasticizer. But we don’t know what the effects of the new plasticizer will be, so we’re trading a known small risk for an untested unknown… I’m not sure this exactly the wisest approach.

You’re right, that was sloppy on my part. :smack:

More accurately, the Canadian government has officially designated BPA as a toxic substance, which is a legal precursor to various potential regulations. The first of these regulations was the ban of polycarbonate baby bottles; more regulations to eliminate other applications of BPA are expected over time. (FWIW, a number of sites have condensed this description to the one word “ban,” but we strive to do better.)

Well, I was addressing the part about “PCB,” which is the part that has had research and regulatory action in the news lately.

The OP mentioned the FDA–why would something potentially dangerous be allowed? The FDA’s approach to foods and food packaging is fundamentally different than the approach to drugs. Drugs are supposed to be proven “safe and effective” before they are allowed to market; this often requires years of testing (the time and cost of this research is typically presented as the justification for the high price of patented drugs). Food additives and food packaging are essentially the opposite; though there is an “approval” process, there is really nothing like the testing that drugs undergo (and most additives are cheap from the industry’s point of view).

The real science on food additives and packaging, if it happens at all, comes after the general public has been exposed. Industries already using the substances under examination typically seek to challenge and obscure the process, because at that point the only possible outcomes are no change, or a change that costs money. Now, process challenges on the basis of scientific methodology (as has happened with BPA) can be helpful in that they can lead to better science–but after something is already on the market and making money for somebody, it’s harder to tell the difference between legitimate science questions and simple obstructionism. If the research had to be done first, and particularly if there were a few similar contenders for approval at a time, the food-processing and packaging industries would have a better incentive to support good science and identify the best alternatives during a time when there was no current profit line to weigh against.

So, an argument could be made that it’s the regulatory process itself which needs to be changed–that “untested unknowns” in general should be kept from the market until some good science on them is established. Of course, that’s a political battle, and if there’s a shift in that direction–toward the FDA actually doing what many people imagine it already does–it will be years in the future.

For concerned individuals, the safest (and most “green”) course now available with respect to this issue is to avoid use of all types of plastic water bottles, in favor of durable, highly reusable stainless steel (such as these).

How do Nalgene bottles fit into all this additives/chemical wise? Because these have always been my favorite type of plastic bottle/food containers for camping and boating. Now, of course I don’t let liquids/food sit in em for weeks leaching stuff out so my exposure is very probably negligble but just curious.

they have products that contained Bisphenol A (BPA) and some that don’t. they have phased it out of the polycarbonate products in 2008 according to their claims.

Could someone explain the logic of this to me? It seems pretty badly thought out, even as internet myths go:

It’s OK to drink factory sealed bottled water, which typically has a shelf-life of as much as 3 years, so could well have been sitting on a shop shelf for a year or more before you even drink it…

…but it’s not OK to refill the bottle from the tap and drink it, presumably within a day or two?
Surely if anything is going to leach out of the bottles, it’s far more likely to cause problems with sealed bottles that are hanging around for ages, rather than a refilled bottle you drink out of within a short space of time?

the age of the plastic affects the leaching.

I had always assumed (perhaps incorrectly) that the warnings against refilling was because of the potential for bacterial growth.

I always assumed the warning against refilling was because the water bottlers don’t want to lose profits.
After all, why else would sports stores sell plastic water bottles?

of course, the plastic is different. The canteen I bought several years ago is High Density Polyethylene. I’m not sure what the Nalgene bottles are. Commercial soda and water bottles are Polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
Now I notice they’re going back to plain metal. Which is what my old Boy Scout canteen was – no liner.

The myth:

The facts:

If you’re consuming PCBs, then you’re probably chowing down on decades-old industrial waste, so, uh, yes, there will probably be some serious health problems, but they can be avoided by not eating decades-old industrial waste (and, you know, don’t eat the dirt at Superfund sites, etc).

If your concern is BPA, then first be aware that BPA is used in far more than reusable water bottles - if you’ve bought a can of food in the past decade or so, you’ve probably bought a can that is internally lined with BPA, and it may or may not be in your metal water bottle.

The NIH, which tends to be a bit freer from political influence, says that for adults who do not work in industrial settings with a very high level of exposure, there’s negligible concern. There’s some concern that it could have an effect on children and infants - which is why in Canada you can (I assume) still buy a water bottle with BPA in it, but can’t buy a baby bottle with BPA in it. It’s something to be aware of with kids, but if you’re fully grown you don’t really need to worry about yourself.

I’m not saying that the linked information isn’t true, but is run by the American Chemistry Council, which is basically a lobbyist group for the chemical industry. Again, I don’t necessarily doubt their general statements, but be aware that it’s hardly coming from an objective source.