By: Neha Lalchandani
The culture of plastic bottles use is accelerating at the rate of a million plastic bottles purchased every minute, driven by the western “on-the-go” trend predominantly in China and Asia Pacific region. The Guardian also made mention of how efforts to recycle plastic is not at all surpassing the waste produced, creating a global environmental crisis that is hard to abate. From a food safety standpoint, the importance of product consumption from plastic packaging deserves limelight. Key points to note include the material used in the making of the packaging, leaching of chemicals, as well the handling of product by producers and consumers.
Packaging is essential for preserving food and beverage quality, extending shelf life, reducing use of preservatives, and easy transport. It protects the food against chemical, physical and microbiological damage. Plastic packaging is most commonly used because they are durable, lightweight and relatively inexpensive. Water and other beverages are sold in plastic packaging made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polycarbonate (PC), high and low density polyethylene (HDPE/LDPE) and polypropylene (PP). Such plastic materials that are in contact with beverages are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure safety of product consumption.
How the FDA regulates bottled drinking water?
Under its food safety program, the FDA monitors and inspects bottled water products and processing plants ensuring they follow the Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMPs). This includes processing, bottling, holding and transporting under sanitary conditions; protecting water sources from bacteria, chemicals and other contaminants; ensuring appropriate quality control processes are in place; and sampling and testing the source water and final product for contaminants. As part of its safety assessment, the FDA also assesses migration levels of plastics and its substances into the liquid contents. The safety of plastic bottles are tested based on two main factors; there should be minimum amount of transfer of substances between the plastic packaging and its contents; and in case of substance transfer from the plastic packaging, it should be safe and well within defined limits so it does not pose a risk to human health in the short or long term from daily consumption of beverages from plastic bottles.
Which scenarios may cause possible leaching of chemicals within plastic packaging?
When a bottle is placed in a car or is being transported in a closed vehicle under the sun, there may be a greater degree of migration of substances from the plastic to the beverage. Plastic polymers tend to degrade under sunlight as they are prone to ultraviolet and infrared radiation. Without additives such as UV stabilizers there can be adverse impacts on the product such as color fading of food, accelerated oxidation of oils and fats, and loss of vitamin content in beverages such as fruit juices and milk. The FDA takes into account the exposures to high temperatures during storage and transport, which is why the FDA has established that the levels of migration of substances to the beverage content are well within the margin of safety. The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA)suggests consumers to store bottled water and other beverages at room temperatures or a cool environment, out of direct sunlight, and away from solvents such as household cleaners, dry-cleaning chemicals, paint thinners and gasoline. The possibility of plastic chemicals leaching also increases when the plastic comes in contact with oily or fatty foods. This is why the right plastic material should be used for the food it is holding. The use of some detergents can also cause physical breakdown of plastic, as repeated washing and scrubbing will cause scratches to form which in turn may cause chemicals to leach out or bacteria to harbor in the crevices. Hence, proper usage and handling of plastic water bottles is important.
What about refilling and reusing plastic bottles?
It has been widely suggested that reusing plastic bottles for a long time is not recommended. A study was conducted to analyze the bacterial presence in water stored in reusable drinking bottles. Results of the study showed the bottles had an extremely high level of bacteria content and a rapid microbial growth, based on heterotrophic plate count (HPC). This highlights the importance of measures that need to be in place to reduce the bacterial level that could be a key reason for disease spreading.
What is the deal with BPA?
In April 2008, Canada banned baby bottles that contained the chemical Bisphenol A (BPA), and also proposed to ban baby formula cans with BPA-based liners, if not create stringent plans to minimize the BPA exposure. BPA is a chemical in polycarbonate bottles and can migrate from the bottle to its contents when boiling water is placed in it, or when the can is scratched. It has shown to stimulate growth of cancer cells and lead to miscarriages and birth defects. However, the FDA has determined that BPA is safe despite people being exposed to low levels due to migration from packaging to foods and beverages. The National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR) under the FDA has shown no effects of BPA from low-dose exposure through their ongoing safety studies.
What’s the verdict with regards to plastic bottle use?
The FDA has stringent rules in place to ensure safety of the beverages consumed in plastic packaging. Consumers must also be proactive at making mindful choices to consume the right products available in the right packaging, and handling them well. Instead of reusing plastic bottles by washing them with abrasive cleaning substances, opt for food grade stainless steel options. Just make sure you wash the bottle regularly to prevent a microbial party!