Will Drinking from Plastic Bottles Kill You?

A recent fad states that plastic water bottles leech toxic chemicals. Is it true?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Conspiracies, Urban Legends

Skeptoid #60
August 9, 2007
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Also available in Chinese

Today we're going to place our plastic water bottle, which has already been used three or four times, in the car on a hot sunny day, and then drink its noxious chemical contents to see if we get sick and die. The idea is that chemicals in the plastic get released into the bottle's contents when the bottle is reused, and especially if it's heated up.

So let's point our skeptical eye at the issue and see whether it has any merit. Do we need to be concerned about this? The only really fair answer is that it's a complicated question. "Plastic" is not a single compound. There are almost as many different types of plastic as there are types of substances contained by them. Some plastics do contain poisonous chemicals. Some plastics do leech chemicals into liquids. In some plastics, this process can be accelerated by heat. The reason for this variety is to provide the product distributor with enough choices that they can select a plastic type that's best for their product. This permits a distributor of drinking water to use a bottle that is absolutely safe to contain water for humans under the whole temperature range that the bottle is likely to be subjected to. But, put gasoline into that same bottle, and you might see that plastic dissolve away. Plastics are designed for their particular application, and misusing a plastic product can produce undesired consequences.

One time, in college, I was moving to a new apartment a block or two away. My brother and I had built a koi pond, and we needed to move the fish and store them long enough to build a new pond at the new place. We went out and bought a cheap plastic kids' wading pool. We put it in the garage and filled it with the hose, treated the water with all the usual fish-friendly chemicals, and walked the koi over in buckets and placed them in their new temporary home. Well, we learned a harsh lesson about chemicals in plastics. After a day or two the koi didn't look so good. Some of them died. Then all of them died. It was pretty horrible, because, and I'll spare you the details, they didn't look very good. We had no idea what the problem was. Was it the shock of being transported? Did we not add enough stuff to kill the chlorine? On a whim I called the manufacturer of the swimming pool and asked if they knew any reason why this would happen. They did. On products like this, they always add a mold inhibitor to the plastic. In this case, they used cyanide. For a children's pool, they add a safe low level of cyanide that's harmless to the children, but is enough to prevent mold from growing that would make the pool gross and unsightly. Evidently, a level of cyanide that's safe for a human is lethal for a fish, since they breathe it directly into their blood through their gills. The guy we spoke to was the company's head scientist, and he seemed to relish this rare opportunity to discuss his work. He went into all sorts of detail about their different products, and how they use the right plastic for each different job. Ever since then, whenever I work on a koi pond, I always call the manufacturer of any plastic products I'm using and talk to their chemists.

Here's the long and the short of it. Whether you're microwaving food in a plastic container, refilling your plastic water bottle, or making a koi pond, use plastic products that are intended for that use. The manufacturers do employ chemists to determine how best to package their products to ensure their safety, this process is strictly policed by the FDA, and this is always going to be more reliable than random information you read on the Internet or receive in a chain email.

And yes, it is our good old friend the Internet that seems to be the basis for this particular fear's place in popular culture. For example, there's one hoax email going around that says Sheryl Crow believes she contracted breast cancer from toxic chemicals by drinking water from a bottle that had been left in a car. Not true. Sheryl Crow doesn't claim this, there are no chemicals in water bottles that have been linked to cancer, and heating a water bottle to car temperatures does not leech anything into the water. There's another chain email that says freezing your water bottle, like so many people do, will leech dioxin into your water. Again, not true. No plastic containers designed for containing food or drinks contain dioxin, and colder temperatures stabilize plastics; it's heat that will accelerate their breakdown.

Most famously, a 2001 study by the University of Idaho found that reuse of plastic water bottles does release risky levels of diethylhexyl adipate (DEHA) into the water, which is potentially carcinogenic. This study was widely reported by the popular media and largely touched off the chain emails and most of the current perceived controversy. But is it true? No. Such a paper was written, but it was not a formal study. It was, in fact, merely the master's thesis of one student. It was not subjected to any peer review, and cannot accurately be characterized as a study performed by the university. It does not represent any position held by the University of Idaho. And unfortunately, it was not well performed research. DEHA is not classified by the FDA as a carcinogen, but more importantly, DEHA is not used in the type of plastic water bottles that the student evaluated. But it is used in many other plastics, and is present in a lab setting. "For this reason", concluded the International Bottled Water Association (which is, granted, not a very objective source), "the student's detection is likely to have been the result of inadvertent lab contamination." The FDA requires a higher level of scrutiny than that applied by the student writing his paper. DEHA is actually approved for food contact applications, but the fact that it's not present in the type of plastic that was studied, discredits the entire paper. But the mass media is often more interested in headlines than facts, so the dangers of reusing water bottles had no trouble becoming a fixture in pop culture.

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Some people allege a conspiracy among distributors of bottled water, who know that their products are poisonous but who have analyzed the cost savings against the projected lawsuits from wrongful death and have concluded that it's more profitable to sell dangerous products. I do not find this theory very compelling. First, the products demonstrably do not contain the toxic agents claimed by the theory. Second, like all conspiracy theories, it's just too implausible that something of that magnitude could be kept secret for so long by so many people and so many victims, with nobody ever blowing a whistle or calling a newspaper. If corporate Men in Black were sent out to silence the whistleblowers and families of the victims, this would just multiply the number of reasons for someone to blow the whistle. This conspiracy theory just doesn't hold any water — pun intended.

There are absolutely plastics that are unsafe for containing or heating food. Look what happened to my koi. Or, let's say you sealed some food inside a length of PVC pipe and heated it over a campfire. Is that safe? I don't know, but I wouldn't eat it. Just like everything else in life, use products for their intended purpose, and you will not have any problem. Be assured that intended use of water bottles does include high temperature cycling. You will not get sick from any reasonable use of a water bottle or other food-containing plastic product.

Brian Dunning

© 2007 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

ACC. "The Safety of Polythylene Teraphthalate (PET)." PlasticsInfo.Org. American Chemistry Council, 1 Jan. 2007. Web. 13 Nov. 2009. <http://www.plasticsinfo.org/s_plasticsinfo/sec_generic.asp?CID=657&DID=2605>

ACS. "Microwaving Plastic." American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society, 1 Jan. 2007. Web. 13 Nov. 2009. <http://www.cancer.org/docroot/MED/content/MED_6_1x_Microwaving_Plastic.asp?sitearea=MED>

Castle, L., Mayo, A., Crews, C., Gilbert, J. "Migration of poly(ethylene terephthalate) (PET) oligomers from PET plastics into foods during microwave and conventional cooking and into bottled beverages." Journal of Food Protection. 1 May 1989, Volume 52, Number 5: 337-342.

ELSI Europe Packaging Material Task Force. Packaging Materials: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) for Food Packaging Applications. Brussels: ILSI Press, 2000.

Mikkelson, B., Mikkelson, D. "Bottle Royale." Snopes. Snopes, 8 Apr. 2009. Web. 5 Oct. 2009. <http://www.snopes.com/medical/toxins/plasticbottles.asp>

Schmid, P., Kohler, M., Meierhofer, R., Luzi, S., Wegelin, M. "Does the reuse of PET bottles during solar water disinfection pose a health risk due to the migration of plasticisers and other chemicals into the water?" Water Research. 4 Sep. 2008, Volume 42, Issue 20: 5054-5060.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Will Drinking from Plastic Bottles Kill You?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 9 Aug 2007. Web. 7 Oct 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4060>


10 most recent comments | Show all 102 comments

What about the taste? Water from a plastic bottle which has been heated up in a car acquires a plastic flavor. There has to be SOME form of contamination. What about bacteria, too?

Stephen K, NJ
February 8, 2013 10:08am

If you bless it and trust in God...NOTHING shall harm you!!!
Remember, its NOT what goes into a man that makes it impure its what comes out of him-

Matthew 15:11

Steve, Austin
March 27, 2013 6:43pm

Cheers Steve!

I'm off to drink hemlock!

If it kills me, it's because I wasn't praying hard enough, right?

Darren, Liverpool, UK
March 28, 2013 4:24am

I think your missing the point entirely Darren...This applies to REAL Christians NOT people who mock God!

Steve, Austin
March 28, 2013 9:33pm

Then why don't they prove it by doing as Darren suggested?

Michael, Denver, CO USA
May 1, 2013 1:37am

As an (now retired) occupational first-aider and protective services officer it often occurred to me that the repeated use of the same water bottle could be hazardous in itself, not because of chemicals, but bacterial growth through backwash. By that I mean people using the same drinking bottle over a period of time allowing a certain amount of liquid to return to the bottle after each 'swig', which is then contaminated with spittle. Very few of the workers I dealt with realised that the bacteria they carried quite normally could, once allowed the conditions to multiply freely, become dangerous. A much greater hazard, I suspect, than chemicals in the plastic and something that may well be the anecdotal source of many of the 'plastic poisoning' reports.

Michael, Kiama
May 12, 2013 1:58am

Michael, this is when the "REAL" christian answers, "Luke 4:12!"

They are masters of circular logic, after all.

How do you know the bible is the inspired word of god? Because the bible says so!

Ben, Columbus, OH
May 20, 2013 12:20pm

Ben, I think you are firing the question at the wrong bod.

Michael just proposed that not cleaning your water bottle may lead to food poisoning.

I must admit, its a very difficult way to get food poisoning when Michaels and my greenacres by the sea water supply is intensely chlorinated to the point that brewers in the area should treat their water (heating) prior to addition to their malty wort.

As to true christians not getting food poisoning? There must be very few true christians that are willing to face food poisoning.

The skeptoid was about plasticisers in water bottles killing you.

Any not so devout christian or any true non believer is perfectly safe..As safe as a true christian as a matter of fact..

magnanamous dinoflagellate, Sin City, Oz
May 20, 2013 10:42pm

By the time it does, everything else will, too.

Alex, Palm City, Florida
August 14, 2013 5:17pm

Hi Brian,
I read the abstract of the U of Idaho/Moscow student's study and she was using PET bottles, and those do contain DEHA. I skimmed your reference, Water Research, by Kohler Schmid, whose research also indicated that DEHA does leach from PET plastics into water. Seems like what's disputable is whether the levels found are in fact harmful to health.
Any comment?

Aitch, Everett, WA
September 14, 2014 8:11am

Make a comment about this episode of Skeptoid (please try to keep it brief & to the point).

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