Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

August 5, 2019


Everywhere we turn we see plastic water bottles being toted around and imbibed by the American populace at large. Drinking water out of bottles is fascinatingly expensive. When we go to a convenience store and purchase a liter of bottled water we pay on average 2.00$ per bottle times four which equals 8$ per gallon, 3.5 times more expensive than a gallon of gasoline! Despite this slight insanity in cost, we all choose at times the convenience of "clean" spring or other fancy water.

Unfortunately, this "cleanliness" is not always nor usually the case as many studies have shown that bottled water is glorified tap water. (see EWG below) Aside from this fact, is the water clean? Is it safe? In 2017, Americans drank 13.7 billion gallons of water from bottles. (Rodwan J. 2017) That is a lot of water from a plastic vessel per person at roughly 320 pints per living person.

Before we look at the science of plastics and human health, let us first remember and understand what epigenetics and the Agouti mouse model are.

From a Discover Magazine Article in 2006:

"Back in 2000, Randy Jirtle, a professor of radiation oncology at Duke University, and his postdoctoral student Robert Waterland designed a groundbreaking genetic experiment that was simplicity itself. They started with pairs of fat yellow mice known to scientists as agouti mice, so called because they carry a particular gene-the agouti gene-that in addition to making the rodents ravenous and yellow renders them prone to cancer and diabetes. Jirtle and Waterland set about to see if they could change the unfortunate genetic legacy of these little creatures.

Typically, when agouti mice breed, most of the offspring are identical to the parents: just as yellow, fat as pincushions, and susceptible to life-shortening disease. The parent mice in Jirtle and Waterland's experiment, however, produced a majority of offspring that looked altogether different. These young mice were slender and mousy brown. Moreover, they did not display their parents' susceptibility to cancer and diabetes and lived to a spry old age. The effects of the agouti gene had been virtually erased.

Remarkably, the researchers effected this transformation without altering a single letter of the mouse's DNA. Their approach instead was radically straightforward-they changed the moms' diet. Starting just before conception, Jirtle and Waterland fed a test group of mother mice a diet rich in methyl donors, small chemical clusters that can attach to a gene and turn it off. These molecules are common in the environment and are found in many foods, including onions, garlic, beets, and in the food supplements often given to pregnant women. After being consumed by the mothers, the methyl donors worked their way into the developing embryos' chromosomes and onto the critical agouti gene. The mothers passed along the agouti gene to their children intact, but thanks to their methyl-rich pregnancy diet, they had added to the gene a chemical switch that dimmed the gene's deleterious effects." (Watters 2006)

This was the seminal research into the new field of epigenetics which essentially allowed humans to understand for the first time that a hard wired genetic code was manipulatable for a differential outcome through food at the critical time of childbearing. Where this story connects us to the plastic bottle world is by Dr. Jirtle's colleague Dana Dolinoy's work. Her lab continued the Agouti mouse research by adding bisphenol A (BPA), a known plastic based hypomethylator, during the critical epigenetic timing moment of pregnancy with the outcome being a reversion to a yellow and obese offspring. She further identified a concentration gradient by counteracting the BPA effect by adding more food based methyl donors to the experiment. The effect was to again produce a brown and skinny mouse.

Pause: The critical piece of data here is the knowledge that during a critical time of embryogenesis, a pregnant mother can be exposed to a plastic chemical that negatively affects her baby, however, this effect can be negated by the consumption of healthy food based chemicals called methylators.

In Dr. Jirtles words, ""It was a little eerie and a little scary to see how something as subtle as a nutritional change in the pregnant mother rat could have such a dramatic impact on the gene expression of the baby," Jirtle says. "The results showed how important epigenetic changes could be." (Watters J. 2006)

Pause number 2: So, if we are to fully grasp what is translationally at play here, humans may be affected by chemicals in the environment if the exposure is high enough at the critical time of child development in utero. This effect is likely to be compounded by a poor quality poor micronutrient based diet.
Ok, so we have a basic understanding of the epigenetic risks to our children. What do we know about our current exposure risks from bottled water? Rolf Halden has written an excellent review on plastics in general that is worth reading in the Journal Annual Review of Public Health. Dr. Fan and colleagues looked at antimony and BPA in drinking bottles in 16 brands of popular drinking water that was stored for 4 weeks in 158F degree temperatures, simulating a warehouse or car environment. What they found was that the levels of chemicals increased with the time of storage and heat exposure. (Fan et. al. 2014) Dr. Westerhoff and his team looked at antimony release and found the volumes to be low at low temperatures but dependent on time and heat. (Westerhoff et. al. 2008)(Yang et. al. 2011)

That is where the data ends. There are so many unanswered questions at this point. We have a solid hypothetical worry that plastics can hurt us at the wrong time with the wrong amount. The field of epigenetics has proven this hypothesis to be valid in animals. However, in humans we have no solid data that this occurs. What we do know is that we are exposed to potentially dangerous chemicals everyday through drinking or eating out of plastic devices especially if they have been exposed to heat for a prolonged timeframe.

As with so many things in life, the world is grey. This is not black and white although I wish it was. Therefore, I revert back to common sense and the realities of evolution. We evolved to be whole clean food eaters and clean water drinkers that are not exposed to high volumes of toxins. I challenge anyone to debate this truth. Science is very clear that we are not healthy nor absent of disease when we consume poor quality food and/or get exposed to too many chemicals.

If we are to assume the Agouti mouse is a good predictor of our epigenetic risk, then it would make sense that we as humans consume a high quality diet with adequate (not too much) methyl donating foods and limited to NO hypometylating chemicals when we are planning to get pregnant or during pregnancy. I feel quite comfortable making this supposition.

I also feel quite comfortable stating that we are at our best when we avoid toxins in all forms. If plastics turn out to be as bad for us as I think, then I would prefer to be precautionary and avoid them as much as possible now. Frankly, there are very few instances when I need a water bottle that is not plastic free.

The biggest problem that we have as a society is teasing out the main individual causes of our 5 decade disease surge. What we know to be true is that we are getting less well as a society as time passes. I feel that it is safe to say that the three main drivers of disease are poor quality nutrition, excessive mental stress and excessive toxin exposure.

As I always tell my patients and my children, CONTROL WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL !!!!!! Eat well, avoid chemicals where possible and be chill. Don't sweat what is not controllable. Love first, eat lots of vegetables and fruits, sleep well, move often, avoid chemicals and pray for the betterment of your fellow American.

God Bless you all - here is to a chemical free environment,

Dr. M

Rodwan Bottled Water Statistics
Watters Discover Magazine Article
Fan Environmental Pollution Article
Westerhoff Water Research Article
Halden Annual Review of Public Health Article
Yang Environmental Health Perspectives Article
Harvard School of Public Health Article
Jirtle Nature Reviews Genetics
Waterland Molecular and Cellular Biology Article
Dolinoy Reproductive toxicology Article
Dolinoy PNAS Article
EWG Article
BPA SPA Article
EDC SPA Article
Plastics SPA Article