What does the government’s decision on BPA mean for reusable water bottles?

For years, some of the most popular reusable water bottles have been made from a hard, clear plastic called polycarbonate. The problem is that one of the key components of polycarbonate is the endocrine-disrupting chemical bisphenol-A (BPA). A growing body of research has shown that polycarbonate bottles can leach bisphenol-A into the liquid they contain, making the hard plastic containers toxic water bottles.

Bisphenol-A mimics the female hormone estrogen and has been shown to cause defective cell division during development, even at extremely low doses. A growing number of studies have linked bisphenol-A to other kinds of reproductive and developmental damage, as well as breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men. Recent research has also suggested it may play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease and even diabetes, because of its effect in causing insulin resistance.

The demand from consumer health and environmental groups for regulatory action against BPA prompted the federal government to fast-track a screening assessment of BPA in 2007. That assessment was finally released April 18, 2008 and declared that BPA was CEPA-toxic under the provisions of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. BPA was declared to be a substance posing a danger to both human health and the environment. Health Minister Tony Clement also announced that following a 60-day comment period, the government would introduce legislation to ban the sale and importation of polycarbonate baby bottles in Canada.

Even before the announcement, several retail chains, led by Mountain Equipment Co-op, had taken polycarbonate water bottles off their shelves because of health concerns over BPA. Retailers also removed polycarbonate baby bottles. In addition, the biggest manufacturer of polycarbonate water bottles, whose products are sold under the Nalgene name, announced that it would no longer be making polycarbonate bottles, opting for a new plastic polymer instead.

However, the government has not taken any action to limit the sale of polycarbonate water bottles and has not offered any advice to consumers other than to suggest that pregnant women should not put hot water or other liquids in their polycarbonate water bottles. Making it even more confusing for consumers, at least one outdoor equipment store in Manitoba announced that it was putting the toxic water bottles bottles back on store shelves.

Even though major retailers won’t be carrying them, it’s likely that some stores will still stock polycarbonate bottles, especially if cheap imported bottles move in to replace those Nalgene used to make.

The best choices for a re-useable water bottle are those made from stainless steel. They can handle most liquids, can be cleaned easily and, most important, don’t leach any chemicals.

Aluminum bottles are also an option but not just any aluminum bottles. Some aluminum bottles have an epoxy resin lining, which can also leach chemicals, including BPA. Two bottles that have shown no leaching in independent tests are Laken and Sigg. Both use proprietary formulas for their coatings.

If you want a plastic bottle, the safest bottles to use are made of high-density polyethylene, or HDPE (identified by the number 2 in the recycling triangle symbol on the bottom), low-density polyethylene, or LDPE (#4) or polypropylene (#5). Nalgene makes a number of styles and sizes of bottles made from UVPE, which is a version of HDPE designed to withstand UV radiation from sunlight, which can cause plastic to deteriorate over time.

Nalgene and another major manufacturer, Camelbak, are both planning to bring out a new line of bottles made of a plastic polymer from Eastman called Tritan copolyester. It’s designed to replace polycarbonate and will be similar, providing hard plastic bottles that can be clear or coloured. It also claims to be BPA- and phthalate free.

However Tritan copolyester hasn’t been independently tested yet to verify the claims or rule out any other chemical leaching.

The new plastic, expected to be on the market this year, will also make it a bit trickier for consumers to navigate the recycling numbers on the bottom of the bottle. Like polycarbonate, it will carry the number 7 in the recycling triangle (#7 is a catch-all category for a number of plastics not otherwise identified). So potential buyers will have to make sure they’re buying the new material and not polycarbonate. Nalgene and Camelbak will undoubtedly be marketing the new bottles as BPA-free, making that job a little easier.

What about plastic baby bottles?

Until recently, many plastic baby bottles were also made from called polycarbonate. As we noted in the question above, minute amounts of bisphenol-A, which is used in the manufacture of the plastic, tend to leach into the liquid stored in the bottles. When the bottle and the liquid are heated (as in a microwave oven), that leaching effect may be increased.

A number of independent tests of baby bottles that showed BPA leaching drew drew increasing media attention — prompting consumers to stop buying the bottles. In response, many retailers took them off their shelves, offering instead glass bottles and those made by a company called Born Free, which uses an alternative BPA-free plastic.

When the federal government released its screening assessment of BPA in April, 2008, the health minister announced he would soon introduce legislation to ban the sale and import of polycarbonate bottles in Canada. He said that the margins of safety were too small to take risks with babies’ exposure to BPA, since infants are far more sensitive to the effects of toxic chemicals.

Although most retailers have already pulled polycarbonate baby bottles from their shelves, the legislation will be necessary to make sure that polycarbonate bottles don’t show up in discount or other stores.

Glass is still the preferred option for baby bottles and many companies are now offering glass. Various companies, including Adiri, and Born Free offer plastic alternatives such as polyamide and polyethersulphone that claim to be BPA, phthalate and PVC (polyvinyl chloride) free. There hasn’t been extensive testing of polyamide and polyethersulphone but both plastics are considered more stable, heat-resistant plastics and are unlikely to leach any toxic chemicals.

I know I should use sunscreen. Are there some sunscreen ingredients that I might want to avoid?

Sunscreen is very important part of skin cancer prevention, and it’s especially important for kids who can get a serious sunburn long before they feel any discomfort. For effective protection, the product should really be a sunblock (over SPF 12) and should have a sun protection factor of at least 15 and preferably 30 or higher.

Still, it’s not always easy to know what’s in the sunscreen you’re using.

Sunblocks typically contain both chemical sunblock ingredients, such as methoxycinnamate and Parsol 1789, and physical sunblocks, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which scatter the ultraviolet light rays, reducing the exposure.

One chemical sunblock that was formerly used widely is para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA). Because of the high incidence of PABA allergy, it’s now rarely used as an active ingredient in sunblocks and many products are advertised as PABA-free.

Sunscreen is exempted from the new Health Canada regulations requiring ingredient labelling on products, but many manufacturers do list the ingredients as they are required to do with cosmetics. Some ingredients to avoid wherever possible include: formaldehyde, diazalidonyl urea (which can form formaldehyde), triethanolamine and parabens.
Parabens is the group name for several compounds, including methyl paraben and butyl paraben, which have raised concern in recent research because they are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that mimic the female hormone estrogen. Evidence suggests that they could affect reproductive development in boys, making sunscreen products with parabens an issue for pregnant women as well as children.

Used as preservatives, are in many sunscreen preparations, parabens are found in many sunscreens, particularly creams and lotions, but it is possible to find parabens-free products. Many of them are among those rated the lowest risk by the U.S. Environmental Working Group in its 2004 survey of products. They include: KINeSYS Kids 30 and KINeSYS Fragrance-Free 30, Ombrelle Sport 30, London Drug Ultra Sport 40 and California Baby Sunscreen Lotion 30.

Burt’s Bees has also introduced Chemical Free Sunscreen 15, which is parabens- and chemical sunblock-free. And UV Natural, a SPF 30 sunscreen from Australia that uses only zinc oxide as sunblock, is available in health food stores and online retailers in Canada.

I’ve heard that some cleaning products contain phosphates. Weren’t they banned?

Phosphates in detergent and other cleaning products were an important environmental issue in the 1960s, since they were a major factor in the death of many lakes and rivers throughout North America through a process called “eutrophication.” That process occurs when high levels of nutrients (in this case phosphorus) in wastewater encourage heavy growth of algae and other aquatic plants. Then, as those plants died, their decomposition uses up the supply of oxygen in the water, effectively suffocating fish populations.

There were efforts in the 1960s and 1970s in both the U.S. and Canada to ban phosphates but no ban was ever introduced. Instead, Environment Canada enacted regulations, now included in the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, to limit phosphate content in detergents to 5 per cent by weight. But there are no restrictions on other products.

As a result, many products, notably automatic dishwasher detergents, still include high levels of phosphates as builders in their products, to increase the cleaning power.

Although the measures that were introduced have greatly reduced the problem of eutrophication, it’s still a good idea to avoid high phosphate products. Seventh Generation and Nature Clean both offer dishwasher detergents that clean effectively without phosphates.

I’m worried picking up cold germs. Should I be using anti-bacterial soaps regularly?

News stories about E. coli bacteria in food and new strains of flu and cold viruses are a daily event these days. In fact, they’ve made it seem almost imperative that everyone use some form of antiseptic protection, and manufacturers have responded with dozens of anti-bacterial soaps, from bar soaps to body washes to liquid soaps in pump bottles.

Most of the products contain triclosan, a chlorinated compound with the chemical name 5-chloro-2(2,4-dichlorophenoxy) phenol. Triclosan has been used in anti-bacterial scrubs in hospitals for many years and was not considered to have a significant impact because of that limited use. But now, its use by millions of people has raised several concerns about both its impact and toxicity:

  • Its widespread use in consumer products at low dilutions could lead to widespread antibiotic resistance. Bacterial resistance to triclosan has been shown in the laboratory;
  • As a chlorinated substance, triclosan may be contaminated during manufacture by dioxins, some of which may be carcinogenic;
  • Triclosan can react with the chlorine in tap water to form small amounts of chloroform, which is carcinogenic in high exposures;
  • Triclosan may react with sunlight in the environment to form dioxins and is not removed from wastewater in treatment plants.
  • In addition, triclosan is an effective anti-bacterial but it is not considered a virucide. So it is of no value in protecting against colds and flus, which are caused by viruses.

Given all those factors, it doesn’t seem to make sense to use anti-bacterial soaps on a routine basis. In fact, the U.S. Center for Disease Control recommends that handwashing with regular soap and water is the best practice and is effective in preventing contamination and warding off infections.