(BEING CONTINUED FROM 21/03/14)
Most plastic water bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a polymer derived from oil
that adds flexibility, color, and strength to plastic (Royte, 2008, p. 148). “It is resistant to heat, mineral oils,
solvents, and acids. It is impermeable to carbonation. It is strong, light, impact resistant, naturally transparent,
and completely recyclable. And it doesn’t impart a taste to its contents. As a result, PET is the most common
plastic used for food packaging,” (Gleick, 2010, p. 91). Roughly 80% of the PET manufactured in the United
States ends up in Nestlé, Coke, or Pepsi containers (Soechtig, 2009).
Is it Harmful?
Overall, there has been controversy over whether the use of PET in our containers could be harmful to
our health. Phthalates such as PET, are known to disrupt the endocrine system, which is vital in growth and
development (Royte, 2008, p. 148). Some research suggests that PET can leach into water. Three separate
studies have found instances where PET can cause possible damaging effects.
For instance in 2006, William Shotyk, a geochemist at the University of Heidelberg, found antimony used as a catalyst in the manufacture of PET, leaching into bottled water. When ingested in small doses,
antimony can cause dizziness and depression; while in large doses, nausea, vomiting, and death. The amounts Shotyk detected were well below government standards, but they kept rising the longer water was kept in the PET containers. Samples opened immediately after bottling had 160 parts per trillion (the U.S. allows 6 parts per billion, equivalent to 6,000 parts per trillion, in tap water). After three months, the antimony level doubled, and after another three months it nearly doubled again. This is all still well below federal limits (Royte, 2008, p. 149).
Study 2 and Study 3
Additionally, two European studies researched the possibility of chemicals ending up in the beverages we drink. The studies found evidence of estrogenic activity in mineral water. Both studies had a focus on the estrogenic potential of mineral water that was bottled in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic (Barrett,2009).
In the first study, which was published in the March 2009 issue of International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, a recombinant yeast-based in vitro assay assessed the estrogen activity in 30 PET-bottled mineral water samples (Barrett, 2009). Ninety percent of the samples came back negative for estrogenic activity.
Barbara Pinto and Daniela Reali, investigators in the University of Pisa Department of Experimental Pathology,suggest that the estrogen-positive samples may have appeared due to being contaminated at its source, during processing, or after bottling (Barrett, 2009). Several studies found the suboptimal storage conditions, such as prolonged exposure to sunlight and high temperatures, can cause leaching of chemicals from PET bottles into its contents (Barrett, 2009).
In the second study, graduate student, Martin Wagner, and chairman, Jörg Oehlmann, of the Department of Aquatic Ecotoxicology at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, tested 20 brands of mineral water packaged in PET, glass, or coated paperboard. Of the 20 brands, 12 were found to have elevated estrogenic activity, which included 78% of those bottled in PET (Barrett, 2009).
Or Is It Safe?
Despite the research that has been conducted, Gleick presents that, “PET is widely considered to be one of the safest forms of plastic for food packaging, and few credible studies have ever claimed to find a risk of leaching,” (Gleick, 2010, p. 91). Also, neither of the previous European studies could produce results that claimed there is a potential human health risk to drinking from PET-bottled beverages (Barrett, 2009).
Furthermore, the FDA insists that PET is safe, but only under normal conditions. Interestingly enough,“the agency stops short of saying chemicals don’t leach into food and water. Instead, it says levels of chemical migration from PET bottles are ‘well within the margin of safety based on information available to the agency,’”(Royte, 2008, p. 149). As with the inconsistent regulation of water, the inconsistent results of the effects of PET on human health could definitely cause major confusion for the public. One group says it is bad, while one says it is good, all while our health is on the line. Regrettably, the real effects of PET will probably not be known for a number of years.
Flint Hills, located in Corpus Christi, Texas is the largest, privately owned oil refinery and producer of para-xylene, a clear liquid derived from mining crude oil, and a primary ingredient in the production of PET (Soechtig, 2009). Suzie Canales, director of Citizens for Environmental Justice, verified, “What a lot of people don’t know is that it *para-xylene] is in the benzene family, and benzene causes cancer. So as they’re raking in the bucks, the people here are sick and dying,” (Soechtig, 2009). As a member of the Corpus Christi community, Canales’ sister had died of breast cancer. Canales recalls that at her funeral, many people came up to her about how so many people in the area were getting sick from cancer. The oil refinery was the missing link. “Not only
do they need to think of that purchase of one plastic bottle and what it can do to their health, but by continuing
to purchase these, it is just going to keep them in business. So if they stop buying that and not only protect their
health, but the people they have never met, people that are suffering and dying like here in Corpus Christi,”
Corpus Christi residents, Jim and Bobi Miller also know the impacts of living near Flint Hills. “Something causes a lot of these neighbors to be sick. Not just me, but my other two neighbors, they’re sick. Anything that is not pure air has got an effect on your health. And the air conditioners bring it right on in the house,” tells Jim Miller. Jim’s breathing now has to be supported by an oxygen tank. The Millers had not planned on living so close to the refinery, but now since they are so close, it will be difficult for them to even try to sell their house (Soechtig, 2009). These are people that are stuck in the wrong place and there is almost nothing they can do about it. Miller explained, “You know there’s battles you can fight and win, and battles you can start and you
lose. This is a battle, that if I started, I’d lose; a man like me can’t go against Flint Hills.” Unfortunately that is true.
The air pollution control agency in Texas was not allowed to inform the community of the possible toxic substances in the air, that they had the right to complain, or that they had a right to clean air (Soechtig, 2009).
Any employees who divulged information could be fired. The only way the agency could act was if someone had called to complain. Only then could the agency go into Flint Hills, investigate, write up violations, and make the company reduce their pollution. The employees could do nothing to help the community until someone complained. The state agency was protecting the corporation, not the community. This is another case of public suffering due to inconsistency.
Robert Bullard, Director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center declared, “When you think about the finished product of a plastic bottle, you don’t think about the process and the headache and the pain and suffering and the health effects that come from living next door. It’s out of sight, out of mind. But these are real problems that are being experienced by real people,” (Soechtig,2009).
Melissa Jarrell PH.D. and Assistant Professor of Criminology at Texas A&M University hinted that there are real reasons why the people living in this area, breathing this air, and drinking this water have higher rates of cancer, birth defects, and other illnesses. Overall birth defects in Corpus Christi are 84% higher than the entire Texas state average (Soechtig, 2009). It is easy to see that this community has become truly sick from Flint Hills’ operations.
Another risky ingredient in the manufacture of polycarbonate plastic is Bisphenol A (BPA), a nonsteroidal estrogenic compound (Rubin, Murray, Damassa, King, & Soto, 2001). BPA can be found in many products such as sports bottles, baby bottles, and water coolers (Soechtig, 2009). It can also be found in the fivegallon jugs used for home or office delivery, the lining of food cans, dental sealants, some wine vats, water mains, and tanks lined with epoxy resins, (Royte, 2008, p. 151). The hard, polycarbonate, reusable bottles, with the resin code 7 on the bottom seemed to be perfect until it is became known that polycarbonate can leach tiny amounts of BPA, a chemical that mimics estrogen (Royte, 2008, p. 151).
There is a large chance that we all own or have used a bottle that contains BPA, despite that some
bottles now claim they are “BPA free.” Even with such bottles, the hormonally active chemical is widespread in
the environment, with detectable serum levels present in 90% of humans in the United States, (Josephson,
2006). The industrial world has been using BPA for about 50 years, and some investigators believe that its
widespread use might explain the recent increase in prostate cancer rates (Josephson, 2006). Several studies
have noted a plethora of different complications in lab animals caused by BPA. “According to more than a 100
government-funded studies, tiny amounts of BPA cause genetic changes that lead to prostate cancer, as well as
decreased testosterone, low sperm counts, and signs of early female puberty in lab animals. The genetic
mechanisms affected by these chemicals work similarly in all animals- including humans,” (Royte, 2008, p. 151).
Frederick Vom Saal (PH.D., M.P.H.), curators’ professor with the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia believes, “Bisphenol A may be one of the most potent, toxic chemicals known to man. The problem is Bisphenol A acts at very low doses as an estrogen,” (Soechtig, 2009). Dr. Vom Saal claims that most of the regulatory agencies around the world function with the idea that stronger the dose, the more potent the poison, but that is not true for any hormone. Dr. Vom Saal conducted a test with a BPA dose 25,000 times lower than ever tested. He found that it greatly damaged every single part of the developing male mouse reproductive system (Soechtig, 2009).
Dr. Vom Saal even admitted, “There is virtually no major human health trend over the past 30 years that hasn’t increased, such as childhood diabetes, that is not related to exposure to this chemical.” It has been found to relate to obesity, breast cancer, prostate cancer, diabetes, brain disorders, such as ADHD, liver disease, ovarian disease, disease of the uterus, and low sperm count in men. Prostate cancer appears to be the constantly linked to early BPA exposure. According to the American Cancer Society, prostate cancer rates have been on the rise since 1975 (Josephson, 2006). Could BPA be the cause?
Gail Prins of the University of Illinois at Chicago Department of Urology and Shuk-Mei Ho of the University of Cincinnati Department of Environmental Health have conducted a rat study that provides the direct link between low-dose BPA exposure during development and later prostate cancer (Josephson, 2006).
Their study, which gave newborn rats high or low doses of estradiol (the environmental equal of BPA), found possible long-term effects, shown by changes in methyl groups on DNA that are responsible for turning genes on and off. These alterations can leave a permanent mark, causing sensitivity to diseases later in life (Josephson,2006).
Prins claims, “Our evidence shows that in an animal model, some genes are altered by the addition or removal of methyl groups on the DNA, which changes the ability of those genes to be transcribed and translated into proteins. It is possible that these effects may pass through generations as has been shown recently for sperm cells,” (Josephson, 2006).
So is it Safe?
No conclusion can be made yet, because future studies must be completed first. Rebecca Sokol, a Professor of Medicine at the University of Southern California warns that we shouldn’t extrapolate human effects from rat studies. It would take over 50 years for results of early BPA exposure to show up as prostate cancer (Josephson, 2006). Although science knows it can have alarming results in lab animals, the same may not be so for humans. No direct connection between BPA and human illness has been proved yet. Patricia Hunt, a molecular biologist at Case Western Reserve University who’s been studying BPA for almost a decade, says, “If we wait for comparable human data and it comes out like animal data, we aren’t going to be breeding as a species,” (Royte, 2008, p. 152). The National Institutes of Health’s review concluded that BPA does pose some human health risks to fetuses and children, but only minimal (Royte, 2008, p. 152). Those who make and use BPA protest the chemical poses no risk to humans, but their studies only looked at high doses, not low.
Ultimately, the IBWA is not concerned with BPA so they do not test for it (Royte, 2008, p. 152). BPA, like PET, is downplayed by the bottled water companies. Dr. Vom Saal declared, “They will spend any amount of that 7 billion dollars necessary in advertising to the American public, trying to convince them this chemical is completely safe.”
Not only do plastic bottles cause consequences to our physical health, but to our planet’s health as well.
There is the cost of extracting oil, a finite resource, to produce the plastic bottles. Even producing the bottles
requires a large amount of water, plus the water that is extracted to drink. Then there is the cost of what to do
with all of those bottles, especially when not nearly enough of them get recycled.
Where Do All Our Bottles Go?
Once a single-serve plastic water bottle is consumed it does not just disappear when it is tossed into a garbage can. Of the 80 million single serve bottles of water consumed daily, 30 million end up in landfills (Soechtig, 2009). That is 80 million separate bottles every single day. If it does not make its final resting place in a landfill, it could either be incinerated, or become a disturbance in natural ecosystems. “Most single-serve bottles are either buried in landfills or burned in incinerators, or they make their way to the far corners of the earth: blown underneath train platforms, into the back of caves and alleys, along roadways, onto beaches, and out to the middle of the ocean, where the containers break into tiny pieces that sea creatures mistake for food,”
(Royte, 2008, p. 154).
More often than not, bottles will end up in landfills, which are quickly being filled up. “In a landfill, heavy
equipment crushes water bottles, but they still take up space. For how long? No one knows: after all, PET is only
about 25 years old. But estimates range up to a 1,000 years,” (Royte, 2008, p. 156). We are wasting valuable
space in landfills by filling it with bottles that are perfectly recyclable. Recycling is the best option, because it
reduces demand for landfill space, but unfortunately it does not help reduce the demand for oil because bottlers
are not using recycling content anyway (Royte, 2008, p. 155). Ironically, it is cheaper for bottlers to use virgin
PET than recycled PET.
Recently, the bottled water industry has been pushing that their bottles are fully recyclable. “‘The
bottles our member companies produce are 100% recyclable,’ blared a full-page ad taken out by the
International Bottled Water Association in the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle in August 2007,”
(Gleick, 2010, p. 96). In an effort to combat criticism of high environmental and energy costs, some companies
have turned to a new approach. The new approach, called ‘lightweighting,’ reduces the cost of production, the
energy required for shipping, and the mass of plastic in landfills (Gleick, 2010, p. 102). These are the new ecofriendly
water bottles with the flimsier plastic and smaller shape. Regrettably, lightweighting does not increase
recycling rates or reduce the amount of bottles in landfills (Gleick, 2010, p. 103). It definitely does not decrease
the amount of bottles American purchase; it only helps them feel less guilty about it.
The problem is that most Americans do not recycle, or do not have the access to it. Even though most
bottles are recyclable, most of them never are. “In 2007 the National Association for PET Container Resources
(or NAPCOR) reported that over 5.6 billion pounds of PET bottles and jars were available for recycling, but only
1.4 billion pounds of PET were actually recycled- an overall recycling rate of under 25 percent,” (Gleick, 2010, p.97). Plastic water bottles and plastic overall is the least recycled of all the waste in the United States, (Gleick,2010, p. 97).
(TO BE CONTINUED)
Marguerite Kaye Huber
Abstract submitted for SPEA Undergraduate Honors Thesis Presentations
School of Public and Environmental Affairs