A recent finding that mineral water packed in plastic bottles can extract dangerous chemicals from the container which will exert estrogenic functions, when consumed regularly, cannot be easily dismissed. The conclusion was drawn based on the observation that the chemicals isolated from such water samples caused an increase in the development of embryos in some species of mud snails. How far this evidence translates into any potential threat to human beings who consume water packed in plastic bottles cannot be ascertained with any certainty because of insufficient data to support such a possibility.Use of plastic bottles especially PET for disposable type of containers and Poly carbonates for reusable purpose is widely prevalent in India and therefore it must get the attention of scientists as well as the authorities concerned with this product. While small containers of capacity 500 ml to 2 liter are in use in the retail market, bulk supply with reusable containers with capacities 5 liters to 20 liters is common at the house hold level and in mass catering places.
There is a strong group of activists who feel that water packed in plastic bottles entails heavy health risks because during their manufacture a cocktail of chemicals are used for imparting various properties to the plastics. Environmentalists oppose use of plastics because for making every bottle of 1 liter capacity, 3-5 liters of water is used which is considered as wasteful. Also cited is the reported presence of Antimony, a heavy metal, in water packed in plastics, leached out from the container. Alarming picture is painted to show that water stored in plastic containers leaches more and more Antimony with time and temperature but maximum reported was less than 700 parts per trillion (ppt) while up to 20000 ppt is considered safe in potable water by international safety organizations. In another study some commercial samples of bottled water reportedly contained 38 different pollutants like Bacteria, fertilizers and industrial chemicals though many of these pollutants could have come from the source from where the water originated. The Bisphenol A (BPA) episode of recent origin is still fresh in the minds of the consumers but water is generally not bottled in polycarbonates from where BPA can be leached out. Polycarbonate bottles are popular amongst consumers as reusable water bottles but realizing the risks of BPA, polycarbonate is being shunned by all major retailers across the world.
Use of Polyvinyl chloride pipes for transport of water also is under scrutiny as it is likely to release trace chemicals like BPA, phthalates, organotin etc all with estrogenic activity. Relatively safe plastics like HDPE are increasingly being preferred for piping and storage of water for the households as well as commercial purpose. While those who consume bottled water occasionally may face relatively lesser risk of health hazards, if the house hold plastics being extensively used to store and supply water were found to be leaching out such chemicals, there is bound to be some concern. Fortunately, as of now, such fears may be misplaced, though what future holds is not certain. Going back to cement or steel storage tanks and GI pipes for water supply may yet be a safer bet in the long run.
The mud snail story from Germany may provide some grist for the anti-plastic groups to denigrate bottled water industry for some time but a critical scrutiny of the data brings out the startling fact that even in snails bred in glass bottles there were abnormal embryo development. Probably this indicates that the original water used itself had some xenoestrogen chemicals and extractive from the plastic bottles only increased the incidence. Also to be noted is that the German study was on bottled mineral water, not on normal potable water and whether the cocktail of minerals present had any role needs to be checked. Further study is warranted to come to a definitive conclusion that plastic bottles are risky to be used for packing water and damning an industry based on such scanty studies is not justified. Globally drinking water industry made 115. 4 billion liters of water in 2006 worth about $ 60.9 billion. By 2011 world will witness a production of 174.3 billion liters valued at $ 86.4 billion.
In a country like India where millions of people travel 365 days an year, bottled water is only the dependable source of bacteria-free water. Similarly millions of people gather in thousands of venues across the country for religious, social and professional meetings and bottled water is the major source of safe drinking water. Suggesting alternate containers like cans and bottles is not practical considering the cost and availability. If there is a risk proven beyond doubt through scientific evaluation, ways and means will have to be found to make the containers safer through better manufacturing technologies.