Journalism / New Haven Register

Retailers yanking plastic bottles

Concerns heighten about BPA effects

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
May 4, 2008

The shelves at Denali, an outdoors store on Broadway in New Haven, are stocked with standard equipment like jackets, walking shoes and backpacks. But one item is missing, at least for now.

Water bottles.

Amid growing concern about the chemical used to make some hard plastic bottles, the store has stopped selling Nalgene bottles and is completely sold out of what is considered a safe alternative, Sigg aluminum water bottles.

“We actually ended up pulling (Nalgenes) off the shelves here,” Manager Craig Aaker said. “Not really because we believe too strongly that there’s a huge health risk, but more because of what our customers were asking for.”

In recent months, concerns have grown about one of the chemicals in polycarbonate plastics, Bisphenol-A, or BPA. Polycarbonates are hard, clear plastics that have been used for some water bottles and baby bottles.

Nalgene, a brand that exploded in popularity several years ago, is phasing out bottles containing BPA, according to the company’s Web site. In the meantime, retailers said they are seeing growing demand for bottles without the chemical, including those made of other types of plastic or aluminum.

“We have pulled all of our BPA bottles,” said Jeremy Castle, store manager of R.E.I. in West Hartford. “In the past few weeks, consumers have been looking specifically for the BPA-free bottles.”

The change in the popularity of Nalgene-style bottles is another twist in what has been a booming trend for the past decade. Colorful, reusable plastic bottles have been a standby for college students and high schoolers, hanging from students’ bags.

The BPA scare is tough on the reusable container crowd. Their trendy Nalgene bottle allowed them to stop using drink-it-and-toss-it disposable water containers from companies like Poland Spring or Dasani. That means less plastic going into the waste stream.

The Yale Bookstore sells Nalgene bottles in a range of shapes and colors, with large “Yale” logos wrapped around the containers.

“I wouldn’t say that it peaked recently — I would say that it’s been a steady growth in the reusable bottle industry and we’re just seeing a different angle to it at this point,” Castle said.

On Earth Day last month, members of North Branford High School’s environmental club sold reusable BPA-free bottles for $1 to all students who wore green that day. The club sold 170 bottles, biology teacher Rebekah Fox said.

Almost all students carry disposable or reusable water bottles with them during the day, Fox said, and the school’s cafeteria sells the throwaway bottles. The club is encouraging students to use different bottles or recycle the waste.

“That’s all they’re allowed to have in their classes, so they have some form of water bottle,” Fox said. “We have 80-minute periods, so if the kids are dehydrated, it’s much better for them to have water with them than to have to leave the class to go to the water fountain.”

Americans have turned to bottled water as a healthy alternative to soda. But environmentalists decry the impact of discarded used bottles.

Paul Anastas, director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale, said scientists there are working on creating plastic and polymers that “aren’t going to cause problems in human health and the environment.”

Concerns about BPA stem from evidence that it can be an endocrine disrupter at low levels, and the chemical may leach from the bottle into whatever liquid is inside it.

“It mimics hormones in the body and triggers endocrine responses that are linked to a wide range of health issues, including reproductive and development issues, obesity, sperm count issues and cancer,” Anastas said. “The data has been becoming more and more compelling in recent years.”

The Food and Drug Administration has formed a task force to review concerns about BPA.

But a message from the FDA reads, “We believe there is a large body of evidence that indicates that FDA-regulated products containing BPA currently on the market are safe and that exposure levels to BPA from food contact materials, including for infants and children, are below those that may cause health effects.”

The Canadian government is considering banning BPA as toxic, according to a recent story in the New York Times.

Anastas said that the chemical has been used in polycarbonate for decades, long before there were any concerns about it. He added that he would advise people to replace their BPA bottles with other kinds.

“There’s so many water bottles now that people think that they’re actually getting safer and healthier water — sometimes it’s not just about the water, it’s also about the chemicals that are in the bottles that you’re drinking them out of,” he said. “In many cases, getting our water from the tap and putting it in a glass is a good thing to do. Call me crazy and old-fashioned.”

The effects of drinking from disposable plastic bottles are severe, Anastas said, adding that consumers use 2 million disposable bottles — including ones for soda, water and juice — every five minutes.

According to a 2006 study by the Earth Policy Institute, consumers worldwide drank 41 billion gallons of bottled water in 2004, a 57 percent increase from 1999. The United States accounted for 6.9 billion gallons, making it the leading consumer of bottled water.

“Water is good — is it necessarily good to have disposable plastic bottles as the way you access that water? No, there’s a lot of reasons to believe that’s silly and absurd,” Anastas said. “Is it good to have portable, non-disposable bottles where you can access your water? Well, that’s fine, you just want to make sure the nature of your bottles isn’t going to contaminate your water and it isn’t going to be using depleted resources like petroleum to make the bottles.”

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