Algonquin Times Online

February 19, 2003

Water bottle bacteria risk cited

By Lucas Cutler
Algonquin Times staff

Students trying to save a buck by reusing water bottles should be aware that they’re risking their health.

Dangerous bacteria and potentially toxic plastic compounds have been found in the types of water bottles typically reused in schools and workplaces countrywide, reported the Canadian Press.

A study of water bottles, authored by Cathy Ryan of the University of Calgary, found bacteria in elementary school children’s bottles that would prompt health officials to issue boil-water advisories, had the samples come from a tap.

The bacteria likely came from the kids’ hands and mouths over time as they repeatedly used the same bottles without washing them or allowing them to dry, said Ryan.

Researchers discovered bacterial contamination in about a third of the samples collected from kids’ water bottles. Some samples even showed evidence of fecal coliforms.

Dr. Gerry Predy, Edmonton’s medical officer of health sent out a public warning to keep the bottles clean.

Single-use soft-drink and water bottles are commonly made of a plastic called polyethylene terephthalate (PET) which, while considered safe for its intended use, was found to break down over time.

The Canadian Bottled Water Association recommends that bottles be used only once. The International Bottle Water Association also recommends using the bottles only once.

“These convenience-sized PET containers are designed and intended for single use only and easy recycling and compatibility with the recycling system. After consumption of the product, PET containers should be placed in a recycling bin for collection or returned for deposit, where and if applicable,” said vice-president of communications Stephen R. Kay.

Dr. Richard Rowland, a doctor at Algonquin’s health centre, agrees that bottles should only be used once, especially during the summer because heat causes bacteria to grow faster.

Preliminary research conducted by a graduate student at the University of Idaho suggests that the kind of thorough washing that could kill bacteria might make the bottles unsafe in another way.

Frequent washing might accelerate the break-down of the plastic, potentially causing chemicals to leak into the water, their study found.

“The fact is, a lot of these compounds have not really been studied in terms of their human health effects,” Margrit von Braun, a University of Idaho professor told the Canadian Press.

Plastics experts contend the bottles are safe. The study ultimately concluded little is known about what happens when the bottles are reused.

“The longer you used it, the more stuff ended up in the water,” said von Braun.

Karen Chiarelli, a secretary in the health center, was unaware of these findings, “I wash my bottle in the dishwasher,” she said.

One of the toxins that frequently appeared in water samples from the reused water bottles was DEHA (diethylhydroxylamine), a carcinogen regulated in drinking water because it has been found to cause weight loss, liver problems, or possible reproductive difficulties.

Von Braun said she was surprised to discover how widespread the reuse was — and how long some people would hold on to a single bottle.

“A lot of people use them for weeks, and sometimes months, literally until it's leaking,” said von Braun.

But with individual water bottles costing up to $1.50 at the college, students may try and squeeze as much use out of their bottles as possible.

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