Plastic Bottles: Balance Safety and Convenience
Headlines about health hazards of plastic bottles may spark concern about dangers to yourself or your family. How much should you worry? The short answer: not much if you drink bottled water or send it to school with the kids. If you have children small enough to use baby bottles or sippy cups, however, you need to make sure that they're drinking from safe containers.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned in January that the chemical bisphenol A, known as BPA, potentially could cause harm to "the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children." This was a reversal for the FDA, which previously had supported the chemical industry argument that BPA was no concern. The Canadian government earlier banned all BPA use in baby bottles.
When it comes to bottles for water and other drinks, BPA occurs chiefly in inflexible hard plastic containers that may have a recycling No. 7 on the bottom. (For a description of recycling numbers and what they tell you about the materials, visit Suite101.com.) But some baby bottles and sippy cups do contain BPA. And cans containing prepared food and vegetables are lined with a plastic made in part from BPA.
As you look around your house or the supermarket, here's a rundown on when to worry, when to relax, and, if you're worried, what to do about it:
- Water bottles—These flexible bottles contain a chemical known as PET (polyethylene terephthalate; recycling No. 1) that only leaches out if the bottle is heated. "Water bottles are OK unless you leave one in a hot car," says Mae Wu, an attorney who works on drinking water issues for the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), New York. "The other danger is if you reuse them without washing them and they get bacterial contamination," she adds.
So wash out those bottles and caution the kids not to refill them on their own. Only refill each washed bottle a few times, though. Danger of chemicals leaching into the water increases with continued refills. For a similar reason, if you buy a permanent reusable water bottle, opt for aluminum instead of plastic.
- Baby bottles—Before 2008 and the Canadian ban, baby bottles and sippy cups widely contained BPA. Now many manufacturers have reformulated their products to eliminate BPA. Parents magazine has a list of BPA-free bottles and cups. If you want to be sure you're avoiding all chemicals, go back to glass bottles, suggests WebMD. Of course, a dropped bottle may mean cleaning up shards of glass.
- Food containers—The can containing your beans or tomatoes has an epoxy lining to keep your vegetables sealed and prevent a tinny taste. That epoxy is made with BPA. The FDA now says it will "support changes" in food packaging as manufacturers work to develop alternatives to BPA-based plastics. Environmental groups argue that the FDA should ban BPA in all food and drink containers.
If you buy a reusable water bottle, opt for aluminum instead of plastic.
What should you do in the meantime? If you cook just for adults, you probably don't need to worry. But if you're cooking for small children, pay attention to the packages on the supermarket shelf. Wu suggests looking for vegetables in glass or cardboard containers when you can't use fresh produce.
Whatever the plastic containers or bottles, heating them is not a good idea. So keep them out of the microwave. Heat milk separately and then pour it into a bottle or cup. Taking reasonable precautions in choosing and handling such containers should keep your family safe.
Printed Friday, December 13, 2013
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