Bottled Water: Your New Hormone Disruptor

Some chemicals in bottled water are so potent, they're the equivalent to hormone-replacing cancer drugs, researchers have found.

September 24, 2013

Sensitive chemical detection methods have found worrisome chemicals in that bottle of H2O.

Doling out $2.00 for a bottle of water instead of packing your reusable water bottle might seem a small price to pay for the convenience of a healthy drink, but how much is that daily bottle costing you in the long run? German researchers have just published a study in the respected journal PLoS One finding nearly 25,000 chemicals in bottled water. And some of those chemicals act like potent pharmaceuticals in your body.

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The study's authors purchased 18 different samples of commercially sold bottled water from France, Italy, and Germany and, using various methods of chemical analysis, tested the water for its ability to interfere with the body's estrogen and androgen (testosterone and other male reproductive hormone) receptors. They threw in a sample of tap water to act as a sort of ringer. The majority of bottled waters tested interfered with both kinds of hormone receptors to some degree, the researchers wrote; amounts as little as 0.1 ounces inhibited estrogenic activity by 60 percent and androgenic activity by 90 percent. The latter, the researchers wrote, is equivalent to the hormonal activity of the drug flutamide, a hormonal drug commonly prescribed to men suffering from prostate cancer. The tap water didn't exhibit any estrogenic or androgenic activity.

For the second part of the study, the scientists were trying to learn which chemicals were causing the interference with reproductive hormones. So they used another form of chemical detection and discovered the water contained 24,520 different chemicals. The most hormonally active belonged to classes of chemicals called maleates and fumarates, which are used to manufacture the form of plastic resins used in water bottles. They can also appear as contaminants of other plastic chemicals.

The mere presence of these chemicals doesn't mean that bottled water is going to cause you major lifelong problems; hormonally active chemicals, usually called endocrine disruptors, are known to interfere with the reproductive development of children, but more research is finding that they can also trigger heart disease, diabetes, and infertility, among other problems, in adults. But it is concerning that they are there, Bruce Blumberg, PhD, of the University of California–Irvine, told Britain's Royal Society of Chemicals. "It is a bit early to make any strong inferences about how detrimental these chemicals will be toward human health," he says, but adds, "It is certain that they are not beneficial."

But you can now tack iffy chemicals onto the laundry list of reasons to avoid bottled water, most notably:

1. It's an environmental nightmare. Unnecessary fossil fuels are required to manufacture the oil-based plastic bottles and to ship those bottles hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles from the water's source to your grocery store. The Container Recycling Institute estimates that just 30 percent of those bottles get recycled.

2. It's no safer than tap. Chemicals aside, numerous independent tests, including those from the independent Government Accountability Office, have found that bottled water, which is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is much more weakly regulated than tap, which is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA requires daily, weekly, and monthly testing for a wide list of contaminants, while the FDA requires yearly testing, which is often done at the discretion of water bottlers. 

3. It usually IS tap water, yet you're paying 1,000 times more for it. The only upside to that last downside is that frequently, bottled water is nothing more than municipal (EPA-regulated) tap water that's been filtered once or twice more. Then a major beverage company puts it in a chemical-laden plastic bottle and sells it to you for a 1,000-percent markup. Remember, it's something you could get virtually free simply by grabbing a glass and turning on your faucet.

Carry a refillable nontoxic glass or stainless steel bottle with you wherever you go, and you'll avoid all those problems—and save a fortune, to boot.