Think Twice Before Buying That Plastic Water Bottle

woman buying plastic water bottles

It's tough to keep track of the latest health hazard news -- one second, red wine is an essential part of healthy diets. The next, it’s trying to murder you in your sleep. One expert says you should apply sunblock every time you’re outside. The next claims sunblock prevents precious nutrients from reaching your even more precious body.

It’s no wonder we tend to take these warnings with a grain of salt (which is also trying to kill or save you, depending on who you ask). The worst part about this mess is that actual dangers get lumped in with the rest of them. Case in point: plastic. Do you need to stay away from plastic bottles, or is that a bunch of hippie mumbo-jumbo?

discarded plastic bottles pollution
Vladimir Gjorgiev/Shutterstock

Plastic isn't magic, it's a mix of fun stuff like petroleum and formaldehyde

More than 300 million tons of plastic are created every year, with about half of those products being discarded within a year of production. Even if you're not exactly Captain Planet, that's a big-ass number.

Plastic has become such a big part of the average American life that it's easy to forget that what appears to be a home appliance is actually the result of a chemical production process that includes ingredients like petroleum and formaldehyde. What feels like a plastic bottle is actually made up of chemicals that mimic estrogen. What seems like a steering wheel… what’s that? Talk more about that estrogen thing? You got it.

Plastics mimic estrogen?

You've probably heard of bisphenol A, more fondly known as BPA. It was first synthesized in 1891, and scientists in the 1930s developed it for use as a synthetic estrogen -- plastic bottles were the next step, obviously.  

Just kidding. When BPA was replaced by a more effective synthetic estrogen, chemists went all mad scientist, mixed BPA with phosgene, a toxic gas used in WWI (yikes!), and voila: clear, shatter-resistant polycarbonate plastics were born.

BPA soon became a superstar of the plastic world, being used in everything from headlights, to water pipes, to canned food lining, to receipts, to your trusty unbreakable water bottle.

woman drinking from a plastic water bottle

Your endocrine system, disrupted

Is it too much to ask that mixing synthetic estrogen and toxic gas not have any serious consequences? Apparently so. Because that little "synthetic estrogen" part doesn’t quite disappear when it’s manufactured. In 1988, geneticist Patricia Hunt accidentally discovered that BPA has a sneaky habit of leaching out of its plastic form and into whatever it touches. This is why you may have heard that you shouldn't reuse disposable water bottles, or why you can't microwave certain plastics.

What made the discovery of this tendency to leak such a huge concern is the estrogenic nature of BPA. Introducing a synthetic hormone like BPA into an organic host has some (surprise!) dangerous side effects. After Hunt's chance discovery, BPA turned from plastic all-star into a much more dubious endocrine disruptor -- though, as with most discoveries that something convenient is bad for you, this news took a while to make it to a mainstream audience.

And if the term "endocrine disruptor" sounds scary, that’s because it is. Endocrine disruptors cause chaos on a cellular level, interfering with almost every bodily function possible; BPA has been linked to reproductive problems, ADHD, diabetes and obesity, metabolic disease, miscarriages, poor brain development… and that’s just the shortlist.

Despite the mounting evidence against BPA from a multitude of independent studies, the FDA continues to claim that BPA is perfectly safe. Why exactly they hold desperately to that stance is the subject of many theories. But regardless of the FDA’s motivations, the uproar of global consumers was enough to convince manufacturers to replace BPA in almost every food-related product.

That's great news! Industry has saved us from the dangers of BPA!

Luckily for you, BPA bottles (and your favorite sippy cup) are hard to come by these days. Not so luckily for you, the replacements aren’t great, either. A 2011 study found that BPA-free products leach just as much, and in some cases, even more estrogenic chemicals than BPA. You’d think manufacturers could find something besides synthetic estrogen to work with, but hey, when's the last time YOU tried to mass-produce plastic?

BPA’s most common replacement, BPS, has recently been put under the microscope, and the findings aren’t pretty. BPS is equally as damaging to brain development as BPA. Another study showed that BPS exposure can actually lead to "cell death," even at extremely low doses. A 2015 review of 32 studies concluded that BPS has the same endocrine-disrupting properties of BPA. In short, taking the BPA out of plastic probably doesn't make it any better for you or the world

water bottles in a recycling can

What can I realistically do, considering plastic is EVERYWHERE?

If you’re not a fan of all that ADHD/reproductive problems/diabetes/cell death nonsense, maybe it’s time to return that bottle with the loud and proud “BPA-free!” sticker on the side. But try not to handle the receipt too much. It’s probably covered in BPA and BPS. Don’t be a hero. Just say "yes" when the cashier asks if you want the receipt in the bag.

Glass Mason jars aren’t sounding too silly now, are they? Granted, it’s still a tough call deciding between endocrine disruption and potential broken glass lacerations. But maybe risk the latter and hope that the developing studies on BPA and BPS are enough to raise some serious alarms.

Then again, synthetic estrogen will probably just get replaced with synthetic testosterone, and we’ll be back to a hairy square one.

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Nicholas Knock is a freelance writer for Thrillist who loves his canned beans with a dash of estrogen. You can follow him on Twitter @nickaknock.