News bites, June 2003

This article was originally published in June 2003

Reusing plastic water bottles may pose health risk

Woman drinking water

While people may think they’re doing a good deed for the environment when they reuse water bottles, researchers say they could be risking their health. Dangerous bacteria and potentially toxic compounds have been found in the types of water bottles typically reused.

A study of water bottles at a Calgary elementary school found bacteria in bottles that would prompt health officials to issue boil-water advisories, had the samples come from a tap. Researchers discovered bacterial contamination in about a third of the samples collected from kids’ water bottles at the school. Some samples even showed evidence of fecal coliforms. “If a town water supply had fecal coliforms in it, it would have to be shut down,” said Cathy Ryan, the University of Calgary professor who authored the study.

When the study results were published in The Canadian Journal of Public Health, the local school board advised parents to make sure kids’ bottles were taken home and washed properly and frequently.

However, a study conducted in the U.S. suggests the kind of thorough washing that could kill bacteria might make the bottles unsafe in another way. The study found frequent washing might accelerate breakdown of the plastic, potentially causing chemicals to leach into the water. Preliminary research conducted by a graduate student at the University of Idaho found that with repeated use, toxic chemical compounds can migrate out of the bottles into the liquid inside.

Although plastics experts contend the bottles are safe, the study ultimately concluded little is known about what happens when the bottles are used over and over again. “The fact is, a lot of these compounds have not been studied in terms of their human health effects,” said Margrit von Braun, a University of Idaho professor.

Single-use soft drink and water bottles are commonly made of a plastic called polyethylene terephthalate (PET) that, while considered safe for its intended use, was found to break down over time. “The longer you used it, the more stuff ended up in the water,” said von Braun. One toxin that frequently appeared in water samples from reused bottles was DEHA, a carcinogen regulated in drinking water because it has been found to cause weight loss, liver problems or possible reproductive difficulties. It is also suspected that DEHA can cause cancer in humans.

Von Braun said she was surprised to learn people reuse bottles for weeks or months, literally until it’s leaking.

The Canadian Bottled Water Association advises against reusing the containers altogether. It says the containers are made for single use and should be recycled, not reused. People can’t properly sterilize the bottles at home and the industry doesn’t evaluate the safety of the bottles for multiple uses, said a spokeswoman. Reuse of the plastic bottles, she says “is not something we recommend.”

(excerpted from a Canadian Press news service story by Jen Horsey)

Organic explosion

According to a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. farmers and ranchers have added another million acres of certified organic cropland and pasture since 1997, bringing the 48-state total to 2.34 million acres in 2001. The number of certified organic beef cows, milk cows, hogs, sheep and lambs went up nearly four-fold, and poultry showed even higher rates of growth.

The U.S. ranks fourth in the world for total organic acreage, but is not in the top ten as far as percentage of crop area. The top six all are European countries. The report mentioned that many European countries — and some U.S. states — subsidize conversion to organic farming for environmental benefits. This may be a factor in the disparity among states; nine lost organic acreage (mostly in the Southeast), while others grew rapidly. (Organic Consumers Association)

Schmeiser back in court

The Supreme Court of Canada has agreed to sort out a long-running legal battle between a Saskatchewan farmer, Percy Schmeiser, and the biotech firm Monsanto over genetically engineered (GE) canola.

Schmeiser is challenging past rulings that held him liable for $172,000 in damages and court costs after some genetically engineered canola was found growing in his fields. Monsanto sued him for growing its patented seeds without permission.

Schmeiser contends the GE plants in his fields grew from seeds blowing off a passing truck or from pollination from nearby fields where neighbors were growing the genetically engineered canola. (Canadian press)

Schoolyard showdown

In Washington state committees in both the House and Senate killed “junk food” bills after aggressive lobbying by soft drink and vending machine lobbyists. The bills would have required the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to draft a model policy on junk food sales and marketing in schools.

The coalition behind the bills had the support of more than 65 organizations, including the Washington state PTA, the Teachers Federation, and the Department of Health. The OSPI says it will draft a model policy, with or without a mandate.

Choice Teas commits to wind power

Choice Organic Teas/Granum Inc., a provider of certified organic teas, is purchasing 100 percent sustainable wind energy for its Seattle facilities as part of its commitment to the environment.

The company is purchasing Green Certificates™, which displace conventional fuels such as coal, oil, nuclear or gas with pollution-free wind energy. The energy will be generated by a wind farm in the Pacific Northwest and will stop 160,920 pounds of CO2, a key greenhouse gas, from entering the atmosphere. According to experts, the benefit of Choice Teas’ commitment is equal to planting more then 19 acres of forest, not burning 48 tons of coal, or not driving 180,957 miles.

Tea fights infection

Tea increases the body’s defenses against infection, but coffee does not have the same effect, according to an article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study found that the immune systems of tea drinkers responded five times faster to germs than did the blood cells of coffee drinkers. Researchers concluded that a component called L-theanine from ordinary black tea primes the immune system to attack invading bacteria, viruses and fungi. (Associated Press)

USDA organic seal

Every few years, the editors of Metropolitan Home publish a list of the best objects, people, places and ideas in design, food and gardening. The list, called Design 100, is in no particular order. This year the design list includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic seal, saying “The hottest logo of 2002 wasn’t Old Navy or Armani. It was the new USDA Organic seal.” (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Hunger strike vs. GE foods

Farmers and activists in the Philippines have begun an indefinite hunger strike demanding a moratorium on field testing and commercialization of genetically engineered foods. This action was initiated by civil groups and farmers’ organizations to protest the Philippine government’s refusal to stop field testing Bt corn, which started in key agricultural regions in 2000. (S.E. Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment)

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