The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

March 5, 2010

Chemical Antimony Found In Plastic Bottles of Fruit Juice

726053737-bottle-of-juice-vitamin-c-plastic-bottle-orange-juiceMost of us know and are concerned about avoiding the “bad” plastics.  Especially when it comes to our food.  Polycarbonate, PVC, Polystyrene.   But until recently, many people have considered PET, Polyethylene Terephthalate (#1 plastic, the type of plastic that water and juice bottles are made from) to be safe.  And while there have been studies suggesting that the chemical antimony can leach from disposable water bottles, especially when exposed to sunlight, heat, and rough treatment, no one had studied other beverages.

Antimony Found In 16 Popular Brands of Fruit Juice

According to a statement released on March 1 from the Royal Society of Chemistry,  42 different juices were tested across 16 brands, and found concentrations of antimony up to a factor of 2.7 above the EU limit for drinking water.  Scientist Claus Hansen speculates that the citric acid in these drinks could act as an extractant, causing more leaching from fruit juice bottles than water bottles.

But let me be clear.  While researchers have measured the levels of this chemical in drinks and suspect that antimony, which is used as a catalyst to create PET plastic, is leaching into the beverages from the bottles, they suggest that further studies are needed to prove such a conclusion.

We have measured antimony in juices with up to 17-fold higher concentrations compared to previous reports on beverages in PET-bottles. Trends in the data material indicate that the antimony has leached from the packing material; however, it cannot be excluded that the antimony was present prior to packing. Thus, further studies are warranted.

Does Antimony Cause Cancer?

That question is also the subject of debate.  According the the press release:

Antimony has no known biological function and the effects of long term human exposure are unknown. Antimony trioxide, a suspected carcinogen and listed as a priority pollutant by the US Environmental Protection Agency, is used as a catalyst in the production of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is used to package foodstuffs.

I checked several sites to for information on the carcinogenic potential of antimony.  The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) says that breathing antimony can irritate your eyes, skin, and lungs and at higher concentrations for a longer time can cause problems with the lungs and heart.  They do not know if antimony can cause cancer or birth defects, or affect reproduction in humans.  Animals that breathe high levels of antimony have died and those that have breathed low levels over a long period of time have had heart and lung problems.  Some rats were found to develop lung cancer.

So can drinking small amounts of antimony in water or juice cause cancer?  The answer is that we really don’t know. Alarmist articles like those published in Britain’s Daily Mail this past week would have you believe that it does.  But the researchers themselves believe their findings indicate further research is needed.

According to Hansen,

we cannot be sure that the antimony levels found are harmless. The human exposure to antimony is increasing and since antimony has no known biological function, there is concern about its long term effects.

And Agneta Oskarsson, an expert in food toxicology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, said:

This work emphasises the need to follow up exposure and health risks due to increased usage of such elements as knowledge on antimony exposure and toxicity is scarce, therefore more data on the antimony speciation is required.

Precautionary Principle

The fact is, we are exposed to thousands of chemicals every day that have never been tested for safety in humans.  We need better laws, like the Kid Safe Chemicals Act, to require testing of chemicals before they are placed on the market.  In the mean time, we ourselves can follow the Precautionary Principle which states:

Where an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

In our home, we don’t drink any bottled beverages. At all. When it comes to juice, we usually skip it, opting for whole fruit. In the rare instances we do want juice, we make it ourselves. And honestly, I stopped drinking juice a long time ago when I realized it’s basically just concentrated sugar without the benefits of fiber from the whole fruit. In the rare case I need juice for some kind of medicinal purpose (cranberry juice?) I can find it in glass. Knudson bottles mostly in glass, for instance.

But however you feel about the juice itself, consider the plastic bottle. Perhaps it leaches chemicals into your drink. Or doesn’t. We do know that plastic bottle will last a very, very long time in the environment with the potential to harm wildlife along the way. Why use something we don’t need?

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13 years ago

Whilst this is of course awful news, I feel the need to express how awesome I think it is that a Swedish scientist was mentioned. :P Uppsala is our eldest university, actually. It is very highly thought of.

I only have a couple of months left until I’m totally up to date with this blog! It’s exciting but quite scary at the same time. What will I amuse myself with afterwards? Finding out more about plastic, probably, and staying up to date. I’ve made myself a fan of the Beth Terry site at Facebook today though, and almost immediately a friend of mine did too. Incredible how it spreads!

One Second Viral
13 years ago

We never knew about the dangers of Antimony. However, does recycling plastic help in your opinion?

One Second Viral

Eleanor Sommer
13 years ago

A great post! Well presented.

We, too, gave up juice a long time ago for the same reasons. We keep a bit around (purchased in glass bottles) and add an ounce or two to plain water or sparkling water when we want something “special” to drink.

13 years ago

But they found antimony in drinks packed in glass and cartons too. So it’s clearly from the processing…OR the fruit!

13 years ago

My parents have always been telling me not to drink water from those plastic bottles that were left in my car. Maybe i should listen to their warnings.

13 years ago

Thanks for this post and for stating the precautionary principle. I thought of you today, when walking on our Cape Cod beach, where plastic was deposited all over the access path to the shore, by a winter storm. I will post photos of the litter tomorrow. Yes, we need to be aware the plastic in bottles may leach into the fruit juice. What a world we humans have created!

Diane MacEachern
13 years ago

We’ve stopped buying juice in plastic bottles; I’m making my own, mostly, since even with the glass bottles, the bottle caps become trash (and if you’ve seen the stuff floating in the Pacific Garbage Patch, a lot of it is bottle caps!). We don’t buy soda, not only because of the high fructose corn syrup, but because it’s either sold in plastic bottles, or in cans that may be lined with BPA. So we drink a lot of filtered water flavored with lemon, orange, or lime juice we squeeze ourselves. We make a lot of iced tea and coffee, and drink a fair amount of organic milk. We are healthier – and we’re saving a lot of money.

Isle Dance
13 years ago

I’m so glad you’re posting this.

My old ND, from way back, alerted me to these concerns. I can’t believe we’re just now seeing some studies. I say, no need to wait for the efforts of others. Start the change, now.

I’m so glad you’re doing this great work!!!

Jennifer Taggart, TheSmartMama
13 years ago

To answer the question, yes, the researchers speculated that the acid present in fruit juices promoted the leaching of antimony from #1 PET bottles. Which begs the question, what about sodas, which can be more acidic, that are also primarily sold in #1 PET bottles. Granted, sodas have other problems like HFCS and no nutritional value whatsoever, but whether Coke or Pepsi leach higher rates of antimony would be interesting.

Setting aside that question, no doubt that if you are going to drink prepared juice, choose glass instead of plastic. Keep in mind that most of the bulk juice in plastic is not #1 plastic (which is the 20 ounce bottles) but another plastic.

Also, if you are trying to avoid antimony, you need to keep in mind that antimony trioxide is used in the processing of polyester fibers, and also used as a flame retardant. Some fibers made from recycled PET bottles have been shown to have elevated levels of antimony, but not all recycled PET bottle fibers have antimony. Some companies remove the antimony, like Patagonia.

13 years ago

What about other things that come in plastic bottles? Mayo? Ketchup? Salad dressing? Cottage cheese? Are harmful chemicals leaching into these? (I realize that some of these things contain undesirables such as corn syrup, etc. Baby steps.) Just got me thinking.

13 years ago

Hi Beth-

Once again I completely agree with you. I also stopped drinking juice because of the high calorie content, low fiber and plastic bottles. Juice is now a special treat served in a very small glass! And of course bought in a glass jar! :)

13 years ago

I have little kids, and we don’t drink much juice but when we do it comes in glass bottles. It’s mostly locally-produced apple cider from the farmer’s market. I don’t like my beverage containers to be made of plastic. Why take the risk?

Anna @Green Talk
13 years ago

I am not surprised. I wonder if the acid in juice causes the leaching? I hate buying lemon juice in plastic.

13 years ago

May I repost this – in whole or in part – on my website referring people to your blog?
This is something parents need to hear.
I see kids drinking several juices a day from plastics,
especially in the hot summer months.