What's BPA, and do I really need a new water bottle?

There's no doubt about it: plastic is everywhere. In the tray, the fork, the tablecloth, and in this case, maybe even the food.
There's no doubt about it: plastic is everywhere. In the tray, the fork, the tablecloth, and in this case, maybe even the food.
Mike Kemp/Getty Images

There's no doubt about it: We live in a plastic world. We wake up in the morning and brush our teeth with a plastic toothbrush and toothpaste squeezed from a plastic tube. We pour ourselves cereal from a plastic bag and milk from a plastic carton, work all day on a computer monitor and keyboard made of plastic, and return home for ­a nice dinner of chicken noodle soup from a can lined with, you guessed it: plastic. We might as well be Ken and Barbie.

Until recently, the abundance of plastic wasn't a pressing health concern, despite being on our environmental radar. Now a growing body of research links the chemical bisphenol-a (BPA), commonly found in a variety of consumer products, to a range of human health problems, including a higher risk of certain cancers, reduced fertility, birth defects and diabetes [source: Neimark, Zandonella].

BPA is the main component of polycarbonate, the hard, clear plastic sometimes used to make water bottles, baby bottles, food storage containers and other items like contact lenses, CDs and electronics devices. BPA is even used in places you wouldn't normally think of, like the protective lining in tin cans and in dental sealants. If you've noticed the little arrows stamped on plastic items with numbers inside, the number to look for here is 7. Although not all plastics labeled "7" contain BPA, it's still a good identifier, as are the letters "PC."

As of 2005, 94 of 115 peer-reviewed studies confirmed BPA's toxicity [source: Page]. For example, one study found that women with frequent miscarriages have approximately three times the blood levels of BPA as women with successful pregnancies [source: Bryson]. Yet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration maintains that the use of BPA in food-containing products is safe, and a U.S. National Institutes of Health panel declared BPA posed "negligible concern" concerning reproductive effects in adults [source: Neimark, Zandonella].

Despite the disagreement over BPA's actual impact on humans, several high-profile companies like Wal-Mart and Toys R Us have gone ahead and promised to phase out polycarbonate baby bottles and feeding products by the end of 2008. In addition, both Playtex (a major baby bottle manufacturer) and Nalgene (of water bottle fame) have pledged to stop using BPA in their products [source: Green Guide].

So is your kitchen full of BPA plastic a health hazard? Or is this publicity all just hype? Take a closer look into the BPA brouhaha on the next page.