There's no denying that bottled water is convenient, but wasteful plastic bottles and high price tags have driven some consumers to invest in reusable water bottles instead. In the industry's infancy, many bottles contained bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in some plastics that can leach into liquids. Research in recent years has revealed the many potential evils of plastics with BPA, and in response, reusable bottle manufacturers have released an array of BPA-free plastic, aluminum and stainless-steel bottles, as well as water bottles with filters.
Commonly found in older, hard plastic bottles, BPA is a chemical used to strengthen polycarbonate plastics. It's also used in the epoxy resin linings of almost all canned goods. This chemical is so widespread that a study conducted in 2007 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found traces of BPA in the urine of 97 percent of people they tested. BPA reportedly has hormonelike properties, and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) notes that BPA has been associated with reproductive problems (in men and women), cancer, diabetes, obesity and early puberty. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns consumers to be wary of BPA: "Recent studies provide reason for some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children. FDA also recognizes substantial uncertainties with respect to the overall interpretation of these studies and their potential implications for human health effects of BPA exposure."
In April 2008, Canada became the first country to ban BPA from use in baby bottles, and in 2010 Canada added the chemical to its Toxic Substances List. In the intervening years, numerous U.S. states banned BPA in baby bottles and other children's products, or have proposed legislation to do so. As of January 2011, those states included Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Washington and Wisconsin. Subsequently, most of the large water bottle makers, including CamelBak and Nalgene, have introduced water bottles that are not made with BPA. Large retailers like Walmart and REI have stopped selling polycarbonate bottles. Consumers can now choose from a large selection of water bottles that are BPA-free, including aluminum, stainless-steel and BPA-free plastic water bottles.
When evaluating water bottles, we give the greatest weight to reviews that conduct comparative testing of a variety of BPA-free bottles. The best comparative tests come from Good Housekeeping and Wired, which test multiple water bottles for durability, style and usability. The most detailed comparative tests are generally older, as it appears the largest wave of testing was done in response to 2008 BPA bans. Men's Journal and Time magazine also conduct comparative tests, but they're a little less detailed. Slate.com and the blog Gardenaut have good tests as well, but they're still less recent than those mentioned above. User reviews are also very valuable for evaluating water bottles; Amazon.com and Buzzillions.com provide the most coverage, with some bottles attracting hundreds of individual reviews.
In response to consumer concern, and recent bans and regulations over BPA in polycarbonate water bottles, major brands have been quick to look for alternatives. For most manufacturers, that alternative is Eastman Tritan copolyester, which is said to be free of BPA. Major companies such as Nalgene and CamelBak now use Tritan plastic to make their BPA-free water bottles. However, manufacturers won't disclose exactly what's in Tritan copolyester, so many critics say there's no way to tell if these plastic water bottles are safer than those made with polycarbonate plastic. Sheryl Eisenberg, an advisor to the Natural Resources Defense Council, says, "We have no way of knowing because the ingredients that make up Tritan have been kept secret." Likewise, Aaron Freeman from Environmental Defence -- the nonprofit that led the charge against BPA in Canada -- tells The New York Times, "This may be a completely safe product, but we don't have the information we need to make that assessment." As a result, Freeman says his organization recommends stainless-steel water bottles.
There are benefits to plastic water bottles. They're cheaper than metal bottles, and they're more durable. Metal water bottles, including those made from aluminum or stainless steel, can dent easily, while plastic water bottles can survive most falls. Plastic bottles are also lightweight and easier to use for sporting activities, as both rigid and flexible plastic bottles are available. Still, some consumers may be more comfortable sticking with metal water bottles until further research has been conducted on plastic bottles -- BPA-free or otherwise. Experts agree that any reusable water bottle, whether it's BPA-free plastic, aluminum or stainless steel, is better for your health and the environment than reusing disposable water bottles.