Is Bottled Water Safe to Drink?
Bottled water questions
Mar. 18, 2006
The Toronto Star
by Cameron Smith
I don't know of anyone who will tell you that bottled water is unsafe to drink. But professor William Shotyk won't tell you that it's safe, either. He says a lot more research is needed before anyone can say for sure whether it's safe or unsafe.
Shotyk is director of the Institute of Environmental Geochemistry at Heidelberg University in Germany, and has just published research establishing that the plastic containers commonly used for bottling water leach antimony into the water.
The leaching is at levels well below what's recommended as safe for drinking water. The troubling aspect, however, is that antimony is very much like lead and, says Shotyk in one of his research papers, "has no known biological function, has a similar toxicity (to lead), and is a cumulative poison."
Discovery of leaching came about because Shotyk was testing "pristine" groundwater at Elmvale, north of Barrie, where he spent his summers as a boy at his parents' country retreat. It was part of an ongoing investigation into increasing levels of antimony in the environment. "Antimony has been off the radar screen until now," he says.
He found such a disparity between the amount of antimony in the groundwater and in water bottled from the same area, that he became suspicious antimony might be leaching from the plastic of the bottles.
So, he tested 15 different brands of bottled water sold in Canada, and 48 brands in Europe. He found significant leaching from bottles made with polyethylene terephthalate (PET). These are the bottles used for water and soft drinks almost exclusively.
(He also found there was a negligible amount of leaching from polypropylene bottles. However, very few bottles are made from polypropylene, which is used primarily for containers that need to withstand wide temperature changes.)
According to Shotyk, 90 per cent of PET containers use antimony trioxide as a catalyst. It's a suspected carcinogen, he adds.
In PET water bottles, he found up to 375 parts per trillion (ppt) of antimony. In bottles stored an additional three months, it had increased to 625 ppt, indicating, Shotyk says, that there was "profound" and continuing leaching in the bottles.
Ontario, federal, and U.S. guidelines all set a limit of 6 parts per billion for drinking water, well above what was found in the bottles. But, with such a fast rate of leaching, and the expectation that antimony accumulates in the body like lead, can the bottles be considered safe for water?
David Coggan, an epidemiologist with the environmental epidemiology unit of the Medical Research Council at Southampton, England, says it's too early for the question. Little is known about the toxicity of antimony, he says, and more research is needed before health implications can be addressed.
Shotyk agrees, especially since rates of antimony pollution are rising. He and a team of researchers recently found that 50 per cent more antimony is being deposited in the Canadian Arctic than occurred 30 years ago. "Having recognized the scale of contamination, we now need to know if antimony really is as toxic as we think it could be," Shotyk says.
His research papers are published in the Journal of Environmental Publishing. To read them, go to the website of the Royal Society of Chemistry at http://www.rsc.org/jem. They raise a classic issue of the precautionary principle: Should people abstain from water and pop bottled in PET containers until it's established there's no risk to health?
Shotyk has decided to abstain. I think I will, too.
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James P McMahonEcologist
"What's in YOUR Water?"
"When you drink the water, think of the spring"
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