The (Possible) Perils of Being Thirsty While Being Green
[Rachel's Introduction: "I hope to find out if I am inadvertently poisoning my children. My fear has to do with reusing what are known as 'single use' plastic water bottles, like Poland Spring."]
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By Alina Tugend
I have the usual New Year's resolutions -- exercise more, lose weight, be a nicer person. I also hope to find out if I am inadvertently poisoning my children.

My fear has to do with reusing what are known as "single use" plastic water bottles, like Poland Spring. I buy them not because I distrust New York tap water, but because they are easy to carry around in the car and to various kids' sporting events. And if one is lost, as it invariably is, no biggie.

We refill them with tap water and use them a number of times before recycling. I was, I sanctimoniously thought, doing my green part.

But by trying to save the earth, am I hurting my family's health? I had heard it wasn't a good idea to refill these single-use bottles because the plastic leaches dangerous chemicals. But is that enough of a risk to make me change my ways? What if I stop using plastic bottles and then drink less water? Is that a good trade-off?

It is the old conundrum about risk versus benefits.

Here is what I found out: most plastics are stamped with a number from 1 to 7 at the bottom -- these numbers are used to indicate how to recycle or dispose of the plastic.

The type of plastic bottle that typically holds water, soda and juice is made from polyethylene terephthalate, a petroleum-based material also known as PET that is labeled No. 1.

The trouble with reusing those plastic bottles is that each time they are washed and refilled they become a little more scratched and crinkly, which can lead them to degrade. That can cause a trace metal called antimony to leach out, said Frederick S. vom Saal, a professor of biology at the University of Missouri who has studied plastics for years.

"We have to assume that along with that metal, others are almost certainly leaching out as well, but we don't know what they are and we don't know what to look for because manufacturers won't tell us what else is in the bottles," Professor vom Saal said.

One inaccuracy that I came across repeatedly is that a chemical called phthalates, which can interfere with male hormones, poses a danger from such water bottles.

Lynn R. Goldman, professor of environmental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the truth was that it leached in barely discernible amounts.

Perhaps more worrisome is that because the bottles -- with their small openings -- are harder to wash out than the wide-mouth hiking and sports bottles, they can house bacteria.

At this point, I do not feel terribly anxious about reusing the bottles several times -- that is usually all we can do before we lose them or they crumple beyond recognition.

But perhaps a better alternative -- in terms of health and the environment -- is to use the hard plastic bottles made with polycarbonate plastic, often known by the brand Nalgene. It has the numeral 7 stamped at the bottom and is the same type of material used to make some baby bottles, the lining of tin cans and other products. I have some of those around the house. They are just too big to fit into our car cup holders so I retired them to the basement.

Time to dig them out?

Not quite. Environmental groups and some scientists have raised concern that such plastic can leach bisphenol A, an endocrine- disrupting chemical.

It is a big enough issue that last year, the National Toxicology Program Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction convened a 12-member expert panel to examine studies related to the chemical.

At the same time, another government-financed group, made up of about 40 scientists with expertise in bisphenol A, reviewed more than 700 relevant studies.

Here is where it gets a little tricky. The first group concluded that most people's exposure to the chemical was well below the Environmental Protection Agency's standard.

Nonetheless, the panel expressed "some concern" that the chemical could cause behavioral and neurological problems in developing fetuses and young children. For more information, go to www. niehs.nih.gov.

More studies are being done on certain aspects of the chemical, said Michael D. Shelby, director of the center, and a final brief will be issued this summer.

But Professor vom Saal, the lead author of the scientists' report, said their findings were far less benign. "There is a very high level of concern about the potential harm caused by bisphenol A in animals," he said, including potential for diabetes, cancer and obesity. "The prediction by this panel is that we can expect similar harm in people."

And industry has its own view. Steven Hentges, executive director of the polycarbonate/BPA global group of the American Chemistry Council, dismissed fears about bisphenol A and said that no country had banned or restricted the chemical's use. "No government body has found reason to be alarmed," he said. On its Web site, Nalgene reaches the same conclusion.

So forget about those bottles? The reality is that bisphenol A is present in many types of material, from resins used to coat the interior surface of most food and beverage cans to some children's toys.

There is a danger in focusing exclusively on bottles rather than looking at the need for government regulation of the widespread use of these chemicals, Professor Goldman said.

But choosing what water container you use can give you a slight sense of control. And Professor vom Saal noted that the range of exposure among people varied widely. So exchanging that polycarbonate water bottle for one made of glass or stainless steel may be a good idea.

Forget glass for obvious reasons ("Mom, I just sliced my finger"). A search of available stainless steel bottles showed they run around $16 and up -- a safer but pricey alternative given that no matter how hard we try, we are bound to leave them scattered on various fields.

"If I was to use plastic, I would stay with No. 2 and No. 5," Professor vom Saal said. No. 2 is high-density polyethylene; No. 5 is polypropylene. Both are used in margarine tubs and yogurt containers for example.

But, he warned, do not heat anything in any type of plastic in the microwave.

If you do use these hard No. 7 plastic bottles, the Green Guide, published by the National Geographic Society, advises you to avoid washing them in a dishwasher or with harsh detergent to limit wear and tear.

I have no doubt that some readers think it is ridiculous to worry about such risks, while others will immediately toss out their plastic bottles. I am still on the fence.

So, in a frenzy of indecision, I decided to look elsewhere in an attempt to be environmentally good. What about those plastic bags we use for sandwiches and snacks -- is there a way to cut down on them?

One friend suggested wax paper, another foil.

"The big trade-off is between manufacturing and disposability," said Seth Bauer, editorial director for the Green Guide and thegreenguide.com. "Plastic is manufactured incredibly efficiently and uses a lot less energy, while wax paper has a fairly intensive manufacturing process."

Mining aluminum is also bad for the environment, he noted, and uses a great deal of energy.

Plastic bags can be rinsed out, if they do not hold meat, and reused, but wax paper is better than plastic when it comes to disposal.

There is also a Web site, www.reusablebags.com, which offers a product called "Wrap-N-Mat" with a Velcro closure that you can wash and use repeatedly at $6.95 a pop.

I might try good old-fashioned Tupperware. I started searching on the Web for cute ones shaped like sandwiches and then realized I had plenty of containers in my cupboard that would do the job just fine.

Stop buying and use what we have in the house? Now that would be an innovative resolution.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company