How to safely use your plastic water bottles

In the aftermath of the hurricane, this topic has come up again. In my household, we have twelve gallons of water stocked up in the laundry room as I type this. Normally, I don’t drink out of plastic, partly for environmental reasons and partly for health concerns. In my house, you will see only stainless steel and glass cups or bottles. To my knowledge, there is no convenient way to stock up on water in the event of an impending power outage other than the plastic options we currently have. So, if you’re like me and have lots leftover, what’s the deal?

First, a lesson on chemicals found in plastic. There are three main ones of concern. First is polycarbonate, a monomer made of bisphenol A, or BPA, which has a recycling code of “7” on the bottom of the bottle.  You’ve probably heard of it, especially if you’ve had children recently. Most all baby bottles and cups are sold with a label “BPA-free,” although the research is a big mixed on it’s safety. BPA has been linked to certain types of cancers and reproductive issues as well as increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. However, it is generally recognized as safe by most manufacturers if consumed in normal amounts (very small). Interestingly, this scientific review does give some compelling evidence of the research that there is in fact some cause for concern, stating:

“there are now over 125 published studies funded by government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health documenting that BPA has a wide range of significant effects including structural and neurochemical changes throughout the brain associated with behavioral changes, such as hyperactivity, learning deficits, increased aggression, and increased likelihood of drug dependency; abnormalities in sperm production in males and oocytes in females; disruption of hormone production and fertility in both males and females; immune disorders, increased growth rate; and early sexual maturation. Most of the small number of studies funded by government agencies that report no significant effects of BPA used one model animal (the CD-SD rat) that after being subjected to selective breeding for over 1000 generations has become extremely insensitive to any estrogenic chemical or drug.”

Luckily, you won’t see it much because of the negative view it has in the public eye (rightfully so.)

The second one is polyvinyl chloride or PVC which has a recycling code of “3.” You probably won’t see it much on the bottom of your water bottles because it’s known carcinogenic properties. A basic building block of polyvinyl chloride is chlorine (duh.) Unfortunately, chlorine production releases dioxins into the environment. This is not good. It’s used mostly to make vinyl-like plastic as a flame retardant (aka binders, shower curtains, children’s lunch-boxes, vinyl flooring, crib mattresses, yoga mats, it’s everywhere.)

Now for the third one, the one that you want to pay attention to, polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, which has a recycling code of “1.” The one has been approved globally for safe usage, including the Food and Drug Administration. There is some concern that it may leach a substance called antimony into the food or drink it is holding, which is a known carcinogen and may cause menstrual irregularities and even miscarriages in women when exposed in high levels due to occupational hazards. So far is there is no known scientific evidence supporting that exposure levels in food or drink would be high enough to cause the same issues. However, this study did find that under extreme conditions of worst case scenarios (including high temperatures), antimony does leach into water at levels higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s daily intake recommendations. I did a quick look through my pantry and found several food items with the number 1 on the bottom including honey, salad dressing, and peanut butter.

Now on to my suggestions for keeping it safe:

  1. Avoid the temptation of reusing those plastic bottles and jugs. I know they look so clean and reusable (there was only water in them after all!). But the more you use it, the more likely the chemicals in the plastic will start to leach into your drinking water. This is especially true once you start washing them in hot water (no putting them in the dishwasher!). If the bottle is marked with a “1”  or “7” on the bottom, it likely contains BPA or PET and why risk it?
  2. Don’t store them in the garage. I know, if you stocked up on a ton, it can be difficult to find a reasonable place to store it all. But in the south, it’s still pretty hot here and temperatures are rising into the 90s. Heat breaks the plastic down and that increases the risk of the chemicals leaching into the water. This holds true if you left a water bottle in your car for a bit.
  3. Aside from chemicals, don’t create a science experiment. I took a look at our water jugs and fortunately, ours have the number “2” on the bottom, which are actually pretty safe. However, I still do not plan to refill them because of the risk of bacterial growth. Now that the jug is opened and air has been allowed in, that moist environment is ideal for bacteria to start growing.  Even if you washed them, over time the water just sitting there with air exposure is going to create an environment for invisible bacteria to start growing. Don’t risk it.
  4. Consider essential oils. One main reason I drink only out of stainless steel or glass is because I add a drop or two of citrus essential oil to every glass of water I consume and because of the purity, it will degrade any plastic I add it to. For the reasons stated above, I’d prefer not to consume those chemicals! Aside from that, there are several health benefits to adding citrus to drinking water. Lemon, for example, contains three main constituents, called limonene, β-pinene, γ-terpinene, which have a positive effect on mood, the immune system, and digestion. It’s also great for cleansing the body and surfaces (ya know, in case a bacteria or germ happens to sneak into my water bottle – makes me feel better!)
  5. In summary, stock up enough water to have one gallon per person per number of expected days of no running water and recycle when you’re done to save the environment. For my family of four, we got twelve gallons for three expected days and then filled up both of our bath tubs to flush the toilets and get clean. Luckily, we didn’t need it all and will now be prepared for next time!

P.S. If you’re looking for online support with like minded moms striving to live a healthier lifestyle, you may be interested in joining my free online support group here.

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Jillian McMullen, RDN, CSOWM, LDN