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Battle of Bottles

The Panic over Polycarbonate Plastics

The proliferation of single-use plastic bottles has created an environmental hazard; an estimated 8 out of 10 bottles wind up in landfills instead of recycling centers

There's no doubt about it: We're hooked on the bottle. Bottled water has become an ubiquitous commodity for those seeking portable hydration. The average American uses 166 disposable plastic water bottles a year, according to Beverage Marketing Corp. statistics. At the same time, the proliferation of single-use plastic bottles has created an environmental hazard; the Container Recycling Institute estimates that eight out of 10 such bottles wind up in landfills rather than recycling centers. For many, refillable plastic bottles — such as the colorful, durable Nalgene Outdoor line, made with a plastic known as polycarbonate — have posed an environmentally friendly alternative. The reusable bottles have been a step toward preserving the planet while maintaining the convenience of portability.

But polycarbonate plastic has come under increasing scrutiny as a human health hazard. The popular plastic, notable for its light weight and ability to resist stains and odors as well as extremes of hot and cold, is widely used for food and beverage containers. It is also known to contain a substance called bisphenol A (BPA), which can mimic the neurotoxic effects of estrogen in the body. In animal studies, exposure to BPA has been correlated with a wide variety of abnormalities, including breast cancer, obesity, hyperactivity, miscarriages, and other reproductive failures. Though BPA can be found in numerous consumer goods such as dental sealants, CDs and DVDs, and eyeglasses, water bottles and baby bottles are of particular concern because research has demonstrated that BPA can leach into the contents, especially if the bottle is worn or if it is exposed to high temperature.

One of the many alternatives to plastic bottles is the Wellness H2.O water bottle, which features a filtration system that purifies and enhances tap water

As a result, consumers have begun to call for a federal ban on BPA. Earlier this year, however, the United States FDA released a statement confirming the safety of BPA in food and beverage contact materials, citing the low levels of dietary exposure (3.7 parts per billion), which it considers several orders of magnitude below the levels known to cause toxic effects in animals. Yet some consumers don't want to take a chance or wait for conclusive human research before curtailing their BPA exposure. Many are switching to stainless steel bottles such as those manufactured by Klean Kanteen, whose revenues have leaped from $1 million in 2006 to $18 million in 2008. Stainless steel is an attractive substitute, since it's toxin-free, easy to clean, and 100 percent recyclable, while being just as durable as polycarbonate. In response to consumer demand for BPA-free alternatives, Nalgene is now phasing out production of its Outdoor line polycarbonate containers, though it stands by the safety of these products. Another company, Wellness Enterprises, is selling the Wellness H2.O water bottle — a personal, reusable container which features a filtration system that purifies and enhances tap water.

If you're not ready to wean yourself from your favorite polycarbonate bottle, take some precautions to prevent the leaching of BPA. Wash and dry it gently when new. Do not put it in the dishwasher, since harsh detergents can contribute to leaching. Use it to carry cold water only and don't let it sit in the sun — high temperatures increase the chances for chemical exposure. Be sure to replace it every six months, as worn bottles pose more of a hazard. Or, kick the bottle cold turkey and hop on the stainless steel train.

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