Earlier this month, Mountain Equipment Co-op, the "REI of Canada," pulled its Nalgene bottles from its shelves, citing concern over potential health risks. It seems that those iconic bottles (Neat colors! Cool graphics! Originally used in laboratories!) that are ubiquitous in backpacks, dorm rooms and office refrigerators are made of a type of plastic that has been linked with infertility, lower sperm counts, enlarged prostrate glands, pre-cancerous lesions in breast and prostate tissue, and other symptoms of hormone disruption.
How many New Yorkers carry a Nalgene bottle with them wherever they go because they want a reusable, environmentally preferable alternative to bottled water? How many New Yorkers carry a Nalgene bottle for their children wherever they go because they fear that softer plastic baby bottles will leach hormone-disrupting phthalates, especially when filled with acidic juices? How many New Yorkers carry a Nalgene bottle wherever they go, just because the bottles are nearly unbreakable and are really colorful?
And, reading this now, how many New Yorkers suddenly feel like Charlie Brown does, whenever Lucy pulls the football away from him, one more time? Like Charlie Brown, how many Nalgene-carrying New Yorkers will learn about this latest health risk and want to shout â€Aaaarrrrggghhhhh!"
The Polycarbonate Problem
Before you fill your Nalgene bottle with cement and jump in the Hudson River, here are some basics:
Most Nalgene bottles are made from polycarbonate. (You can distinguish polycarbonate from other plastics because the polycarbonate bottles have the number 7 in the little recycling triangle on the bottom). Polycarbonate is a form of plastic that is comprised mostly of bisphenol A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor that mimics the female hormone, estrogen. In animal studies, BPA has been associated with the abnormalities listed above, as well as with obesity and insulin resistance â€“ a condition that commonly precedes the development of diabetes. If all that wasn't bad enough, BPA also has been shown in animal studies to cause changes in behavior. (Could it have been his Nalgene bottle -- and not the steroids -- that caused an enraged Roger Clemens to throw a broken bat at Mike Piazza during Game 2 of the 2000 World Series?)
Not surprisingly, industry-funded studies have failed to find these same effects. And, the jump from animal studies to human impacts is an imperfect one, so there is a lot of controversy around the toxic effects of BPA. Although we can't say with certainty that BPA causes the same problems in humans as it does in the laboratory animals, the weight of scientific evidence should prompt us to err on the side of caution and avoid BPA exposures where possible.
We also know that more than 90 percent of the general population carries residues of BPA in their bodies. How is that possible? After all, not everybody drinks from Nalgene bottles. But the BPA chemical is ubiquitous. Epoxy resins containing BPA line the cans of tomato sauce and leach into the sauce, thanks to the acidity of the tomatoes. It lines the insides of your Coke and juice cans—whoops, there's that acid-enhanced leaching again. Canned fruits? Yup, you'll find BPA in those cans too. Here are some other BPA sources: the insides of the cans of infant formula, some dental sealants and even that polycarbonate pitcher that came with your Brita filter.
What You Can Do
Eliminating exposure to BPA is probably close to impossible, given its ubiquity. But reducing exposure to this chemical makes sense, especially for children (their developing bodies are especially prone to the health impacts of endocrine disruptors like BPA). Avoiding polycarbonate bottles is one step in reducing exposure to endocrine disruptors. (An important note here: Although Nalgene has become the "Kleenex" of the polycarbonate world, all polycarbonate bottles contain BPA, so you should avoid bottles with that little "7" in the recycling triangle, whether they come from Nalgene, Starbucks or your Brita filter system.) If you use these bottles, recognize that high temperatures (e.g., your dishwasher), acidic liquids (e.g., juice), and any discoloration or cracking due to age are all likely to increase BPA leaching.
There are better options for storing drinks: an unlined stainless steel container (e.g. Klean Kanteen) or another type of plastic container, such as polyethylene or polypropylene, which doesn't contain BPA. (Look for the number 1, 2, or 5 in the recycling triangle on the bottom of the container.)
Second, recognize that more of our collective exposures are likely to come from BPA in cans especially if the contents are highly acidic such as a tomato-based product or soda. San Marzano tomatoes may be the best for cooking, but buying them in glass or those milk carton-like boxes will keep BPA out of the sauce. Likewise, canned pineapple may have been the only way to eat that fruit when we were kids, but now buying fresh is the BPA-free way to enjoy it.
Rich Kassel is a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), where he focuses on urban air pollution and transportation issues. He also chairs the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a regional transportation advocacy organization, and is on the boards of the New York League of Conservation Voters and Transportation Alternatives. He blogs on a variety of environmental issues on the NRDC Switchboard at http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/rkassel.