Consumers are not in any danger of suffering from chemical exposure from using or reusing plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET) water bottles, plastic representative body PlasticsSA executive director Anton Hanekom stresses.
“Plastic is the ideal packaging material for today’s modern society.
“It is lightweight, increases the shelf life of fresh produce, reduces waste and breakage, and is recyclable, but consumers are continuously plagued with rumours about cancer risks associated with using this popular packaging material,” he states.
He points out that a hoax email has been circulating about the dangers of reusing water bottles.
The email originated from a student’s master’s thesis from the University of Idaho, in the US, and suggested that the blue PET water bottles, if reused or left in the sun, would release dangerous chemicals, such as diethylhydroxylamine (DEHA), from the plastic into the water, which could cause numerous health problems.
Although mainstream media around the world published the findings, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not review the thesis, says Hanekom.
The FDA regulates bottled water as a packaged food product. It has determined that PET meets the standards for food contact materials and does not contain DEHA.
“The public needs to know that DEHA is not used in PET bottles and that it is, therefore, impossible for this chemical to leach into the water – even if the bottle is left in the sun for several hours,” PlasticsSA highlights.
However, one health concern that does need to be taken into account when reusing water bottles is that people, particularly children, can easily spread and ingest bacteria from their hands and mouths in the sharing and reusing of bottles that have not been properly washed or have not been allowed sufficient time to dry, warns Hanekom.
PlasticsSA adds that PET bottles have received a great deal of media attention, which raised questions about their safety.
“Preying on the fears of consumers and then promising to right a grievous wrong, such as cancer-causing water bottles, is nothing new when it can buy popularity,” says Hanekom, reflecting on political campaigns in the US and Europe.
“Add to this the scaremongering tactics used by companies that try to sell biomass-based plastic products in place of polystyrene products, by warning that plastic products are dangerous for consumers’ health. That is just not true,” says Hanekom.
He acknowledges that people have the right to be concerned about their own health and safety, and states that the global plastics industry, which includes South Africa, takes such a view.
“There is no doubt that concerns about certain chemicals do exist and, globally, scientists are being called upon to do more to see if humans are, in fact, at risk when using packaging materials that contain chemicals.
“The informed consumer needs to make a sensible lifestyle choice and PlasticsSA supports that.”
The industry body states that it will not react defensively to the possible health hazards of the use of plastic.
“On the contrary, we acknowledge that some scientific research may well have identified some possible risks that depend on the extent of a person’s exposure to a particular chemical in packaging materials such as Bisphenol A.”
The industry body, however, associates itself with the declarations of PlasticsEurope, the American Chemistry Council plastics division, and the Japanese and the Australian/New Zealand plastics sssociations, stating that plastic packaging materials are based on good science principles.
PlasticsSA adds that position papers on good science by these organisations are freely available.
“The global plastics industry will not knowingly endanger the health of consumers, but consumers must be aware that there are some unscrupulous manufacturers of certain products that are less than forthcoming about what their products contain,” Hanekom warns.
Meanwhile, the industry body says that, in addition to delivering clean and safe drinking water to areas in our country where it is desperately needed, bottled water also provides an affordable, healthy and practical alternative to soft drinks.
Once consumed, the plastic bottles and other plastic packaging recycling process provides employment to more than 40 000 people in the country, it adds.
In South Africa, PET water bottles are not exported for recycling, as is the case in many other countries, but are mechanically recycled into fibre filling for duvets, pillows, fleece jackets, automotive parts, insulation, geotextiles and, most importantly, back into food-grade packaging, says Hanekom.
“South Africa currently recycles five-million bottles a day. Besides creating jobs in waste management, and the developing production, manufacturing and marketing sectors, this recycling industry reduces our dependence on importing raw materials for plastics manufacturing, shrinks the carbon footprint of the country and ensures that used plastic bottles don’t end up in landfills.”
It is also important to highlight that bottled- water companies are reducing their environmental footprint by using lighter-weight plastics. The bottles currently weigh 27% less than they did seven years ago, he notes.
If plastic packaging were to be replaced by traditional materials, the world’s energy consumption would double, and carbon gas emissions would increase sevenfold, PlasticsSA asserts.
“Knowing the truth about plastic packaging is empowering and we encourage the public to always do more research on statements and emails, particularly those where the consequences can potentially be life threatening,” the industry body concludes.