Should We Label Bottled Water as Being Hazardous to Human Health?

Water filter distribution is critical to provide safe, clean drinking water to U.S. communities during water crises without causing massive amounts of plastic pollution. 

Aging infrastructure, natural disasters, toxic contaminants, and a severe lack of funding are just some of the crises U.S. water systems are facing that result in unsafe water for disproportionately Black, Brown, and low-income communities. Without a reliable clean water source, many families have turned to purchasing single-use plastic water bottles for cooking, washing, and drinking in the hopes of protecting their children and family members from polluted water. 

However, single use-plastic water bottles are an expensive additional financial cost to families, and filtered tap water is far more affordable. This, in addition to the harmful health costs of consuming water from plastic bottles that can release nano & microplastics into the water, along with toxic plastic additive chemicals. Filters, not bottles, can provide a safe, affordable water solution, especially during the U.S. lead service line replacement. 

Filtered Not Bottled Water Could Prevent the Use of Hundreds of Billions of Single-Use Plastic Bottles

Water systems must implement a “filter first” strategy, providing a filter certified to remove lead to impacted households to provide an immediate safe water source. World health experts agree there is no safe level of lead exposure, especially for children who can face irreversible health consequences from even low levels of exposure. While there have been significant advancements in recent years on lead service line replacement (LSLR), it will still be 10 years before many cities replace their last lead line, and over 40 years for cities like Chicago to have clean drinking water. 

Providing filters to families impacted by lead service line replacement in the U.S. could provide an immediate clean water source while preventing the use of hundreds of billions of single-use plastic bottles over the course of the project. Supplying the 22 million impacted people in the United States with single-use plastic water bottles for just six months would require over 32 billion water bottles. Ensuring expedient distribution of filters and proper education is critical to provide families with safe, clean drinking water as soon as possible without polluting single-use plastics. 

EPA Lead and Copper Rule Improvement Must Go Further with Filters

On November 30, 2023, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the Draft Lead and Copper Rule Improvement (LCRI), a strengthened version of the Lead and Copper Rule created to control lead and copper in drinking water. As strongly recommended by Plastic Pollution Coalition, the drafted rule requires water systems with consistently high levels of lead to make available filters certified to remove lead from water, rather than single-use water bottles. This is a significant step forward. However, the draft language on filters does not go far enough to provide clean water to impacted communities. The LCRI draft must be strengthened to:

  1. Require water systems to fund the purchase and distribution of filters to customers.
  2. Require water systems to provide in-depth education materials and training on filter efficacy, and filter use and maintenance. 
  3. Reduce the number of lead action level exceedances and time period required in order to mandate filter distribution, as well as the time for filter program implementation.

Water systems must actively distribute water filters to lead-impacted homes. “Making filters available” as currently mandated in the draft LCRI is simply not enough. Education materials and training must also be provided on filter efficacy and filter use and maintenance. Community trust in water filters and accurate servicing of the filter is critical to ensure families don’t turn to costly polluting single-use plastic water bottles or improperly use the filters, resulting in exposure to unsafe water contaminants. Proper distribution and education is critical to ensuring customers can access, trust, and properly use their filter, as seen in Denver, Colorado where, with advanced distribution and education measures, Denver achieved 80% filter adoption rates

The EPA must also minimize the period that families must wait for a filter by reducing the time and number of lead level exceedances required to constitute “consistently high levels of lead” and expedite filter program implementation as any amount of lead exposure is unsafe. A “filter first” approach will ensure families have access to clean, safe drinking water in the many years to come as the LCRI is implemented and lead service lines are replaced. 

Additional Measures Must Be Taken

Additionally, Plastic Pollution Coalition, along with Beyond Plastics, calls on EPA to provide recommendations for safe replacement pipe materials such as recycled copper and stainless steel, and advise against dangerous alternatives such as PVC and CPVC plastic pipes, which introduce another source of plastic pollution into peoples’ lives. These materials are an environmental injustice nightmare, as evidenced by the derailment of a train carrying vinyl chloride almost one year ago in East Palestine, Ohio, and can leach dangerous contaminants into the water they transport such as vinyl chloride and microplastics. 

We also support calls for EPA to reduce the lead action level from 10 to 5 ppb and require water systems to pay for full service line replacement. This is a critical opportunity for EPA to increase clean water access without the distribution and pollution of toxic plastic bottles and pipes.

Take Action

Sign the petition to urge the EPA to strengthen the proposed LCRI language on filter distribution and ensure families have access to safe water without toxic lead or plastic pollution!

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Plastic water bottles, a long-known enemy of our Earth, are finding their way into human bodies in huge quantities—well, pieces of them are. A study published this week shows just how much plastic we drink with bottled water: Researchers from Columbia University and Rutgers have found at least 240,000 plastic particles in the average liter of bottled water, a major health concern.

Most of the plastic particles found by the researchers were extremely small nanoplastics, which have a diameter of less than one micrometer—making them invisible to the naked eye. Nanoplastics have been historically challenging to study due to their extremely small size, but as technology has improved, scientists are now finding them almost everywhere—including in the environment, plants, animals, beverages, foods, and our human bodies.

We know at this point that our skin is constantly shedding. And this is what these plastic items are doing — they’re just constantly shedding.

— Dr. Sam Mason, professor and director of sustainability at Penn State Behrend, said to The Washington Post

Tiny Plastics Present Big Dangers

Looking at microplastic under microscope at beach.

Plastics do not benignly break down like natural substances. Instead, they break apart into infinitely smaller pieces that remain plastic. This process can be sped up when plastics are exposed to water, such as in the ocean or in a water bottle, or when plastic is heated, like when lawn furniture is left in the sun or a plastic container of food is microwaved. In addition to creating nanoplastics, plastic items also shed slightly larger and more visible microplastics. And unfortunately these particles are becoming virtually impossible to avoid. Another recent study shows that commonly consumed plant and animal proteins are contaminated with microplastics

Due to their small size, nanoplastics and microplastics accumulate in and travel through our environment, and this means these tiny plastic pieces are increasingly entering bodies. We are especially exposed to microplastics and nanoplastics when we drink, eat, and breathe. Over the past several years, scientists have detected the presence of tiny plastic particles all throughout people’s bodies, including in our hearts, bloodstreams, veins, lungs, placentas, feces, testes/semen, breast milk, and brains, with more worrying research now on the way. Observations of wild animals in nature show us that interactions with plastic particles can be lethal—especially nanoplastics which are so small they can travel from animals’ bloodstreams into their brains, other organs and tissues, and living cells. Children and pregnant people are especially vulnerable to the effects of plastic.

While the full range of health effects of nanoplastics and microplastics in our bodies is not yet fully understood, what experts do know is already very concerning. Like all plastics, microplastics and nanoplastics are known to contain any mix of additive chemicals. More than 16,000 such chemicals have been counted in plastics, and none have been classified as “safe.” At least 25% are already officially classified as hazardous. A few concerning plastic chemicals include hormone-disrupting and cancer-causing phthalates, PFAS, and bisphenols; asbestos and toxic heavy metals such as lead and arsenic; and much more. Additionally, microplastics can absorb and accumulate toxic chemicals in the environment, which leach into living bodies, waters, soils, and plants.

Take Action

Tiny plastic particles are also present in tap water, due to the use of plastic pipes, water storage and treatment equipment, and environmental pollution—but in far smaller quantities. Certain filters can help remove plastic particles from tap water. Drinking from plastic-free ceramic, glass, or stainless steel reusable water bottles can help drastically reduce your exposure to plastic particles. Further, when choosing foods, select the least processed options, such as loose fruits and vegetables which are usually less contaminated by plastic, and in general avoid food that is packaged in plastic—instead, look for foods in paper, banana leaves, or no packaging.

While it’s helpful and healthy to cut plastic out of your life to protect your health, we still need major systems change to stop this urgent global crisis. One major step we can take is to ban plastic water and beverage bottles, and all other plastic, from school lunchrooms to protect children’s health. Please tell the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service to eliminate the use of plastics as part of the National School Lunch Program.

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In the Northern Hemisphere, colder weather, longer nights, and time with family can often mean more opportunities to stream your favorite films and binge new or beloved TV shows. And if you’re anything like us, you can’t help but notice when a character you love has an emotional support water bottle, or when a beloved science fiction show knows enough about the harm of microplastics to make them a key storyline. But how can you mark it when you do spot these moments? With our new Reusables on Screen Form, you can help us celebrate reusable and refillable wins on film and TV.

“Plastic is Forever” is the slogan plastered across the promotional posters for the new Mean Girls movie musical. And while the writers of this movie certainly are referencing the pivotal mean girl group of the movie, referred to as “The Plastics,” the double meaning isn’t lost on us. 

Those of us at Plastic Pollution Coalition and Flip the Script on Plastics like to think this slogan means Tina Fey and the producers of the film understand, on some level, the toxic nature of plastics, and that, loaded with that understanding, the movie just might contain a tangible lack of single-use plastics replaced with more sustainable, environmentally friendly reusable alternatives.

In fact, since launching our Flip the Script on Plastics initiative in 2021, we have noticed more and more reusables popping up in our favorite TV shows and movies. This year alone we found significant reusable water bottle placement in Sex Education (Netflix), Shrinking (AppleTV+), and the movie Theater Camp. But we are certain there are more sightings that we simply have not had time yet to catch and reflect, which is why we need you as a part of our community’s help.

The Reusables on Screen Form

Mean Girls, Paramount Pictures

Introducing our new tool, the Reusables on Screen Form. A quick and easy way for you to let us know where you see reusables, refillables, or language about plastic pollution reflected in popular culture, so that we can highlight these wins, thereby  showing Hollywood that ditching plastic isn’t so hard after all.
The process is simple: If you catch a reusable feature in a TV show or movie, be them brand spanking new, or 20+ years old, open our form and let us know. Give us as much information as you can, but don’t feel bad if you didn’t catch the exact time or episode it happened in, even the title will go a long way.

What About Single-Use Plastics on Screen?

Jury Duty, Amazon Prime

We are still watching out for single-use plastics that show up on our screens, but at Plastic Pollution Coalition, we prefer to focus on the positives rather than the negatives. And, unfortunately, the amount of plastics on screen can at times be so high it’s impossible to count. We’re hoping that one day the same goes for reusables, and the more we identify these wins on screen, the more we can encourage the entertainment industry to keep up the good work and highlight even more reusables. 

If you spot reusables on screen and submit it with our form, don’t forget to drop your social media handles if you are willing; we would love to celebrate you as well as the plastic-free moments! If we choose to highlight the reusables you found, we’ll tag you in our posts and let you join us in our joy that another piece of media is working to Flip the Script on Plastics. So go ahead, bookmark the form, and get watching!

Learn More & Get Involved

Sex Education, Netflix

Learn more about Flip the Script on Plastics, including additional resources and latest news on how we’re helping Hollywood eliminate single-use plastics from sets and storylines. To get involved with our initiative, contact Amelia@PlasticPollutionCoalition.org

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As strongly recommended by Plastic Pollution Coalition and other leading experts and community advocates, on November 30 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) included in the newly drafted Lead and Copper Rule Improvement (LCRI) language that could mitigate the distribution and use of hundreds of billions of single-use plastic water bottles across the United States over the next 10 years. 

The LCRI strengthens the Lead and Copper Rule that was originally published in 1991 to control lead and copper in drinking water, and the Filtered Not Bottled campaign has been pushing for the inclusion of language to proactively recommend the distribution point-of-use filters to impacted households within the LCRI. The newly drafted rule requires water systems with consistently high levels of lead to make available to customers filters certified to remove lead from water, rather than single-use water bottles. This is a very significant step forward.

It is critical we do not allow additional serious pollutants to be introduced into the environment and our bodies while the U.S. addresses getting toxic lead out of our drinking water. Plastic pollutes at every stage of its existence. We are grateful the EPA draft rule will advance access to filters, which can provide families with a safer, sustainable clean water solution to protect them for many years to come, while also reducing the use of plastic bottled water.

— Julia Cohen, Co-Founder and Managing Director, Plastic Pollution Coalition

In the United States there are an estimated 12 million lead pipes, otherwise known as lead service lines, bringing water into the homes of 22 million or more people. There is no safe level of lead in drinking water, and exposure can result in cognitive delays, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. The Biden-Harris Administration had previously committed to removing 100% of lead service lines within the next 10 years. However, because there is no safe level of lead exposure, many communities are now facing the question of how to get clean drinking water while they wait up to a decade for their lead pipes to be replaced. One thing is clear: single-use plastic water bottles are not the solution.

The Problem with Single-Use Plastic Bottles

Single-use plastic water bottles, like all plastics and especially single-use plastics, pollute throughout their existence. Unfortunately, consumption of single-use plastic bottles continues to grow, with 3 million single-use bottles used per hour in the U.S.; most of these bottles are not recycled and end up in landfills, incinerators, or are shipped overseas, driving pollution and injustice. Unfortunately, government and aid agencies have historically provided communities facing water pollution from lead and other contaminants with single-use water bottles—a regrettable substitute and another form of pollution.

Single-use plastic bottles are not only a source of pollution at the end of their use, but also during their production, transportation, and consumption. Plastic production emits highly toxic chemicals into primarily poor, rural, and Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) communities. People living on the front lines of plastic production face a heightened risk of experiencing asthma, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Plastic bottles release toxic chemicals and microplastics into the water they hold, which in turn enters human bodies when consumed. Chemicals found in the water inside plastic bottles include hazardous heavy metals, including lead and antimony, and hormone disruptors, such as phthalates and bisphenols. 

Plastic Pollution Coalition has spent the last 14 years breaking the “myth” of single-use plastic bottles as a safe source of water and other beverages, exposing single-use bottles as pollution to communities, the environment, and the drinks they contain. We advocate for safe, simple solutions such as reusable, plastic-free bottles and water filters.

Filters, Not Bottles, as a Solution for Safe Drinking Water

In 2022, Plastic Pollution Coalition launched the Filtered Not Bottled campaign to call on the EPA and local governments to recommend and support distribution of filters to households impacted by lead pipes for use before, during, and up to 6 months after lead service line replacement.

Home water filters certified to remove lead are an economical, accessible, and healthy way to ensure families impacted by lead lines have access to clean water for drinking, cooking, and washing. Pitcher filters and replacement filters for one year can cost as low as $50, while single-use bottled water can cost $1,820–-$2,080 a year per person at $7.00–$8.00 per gallon and 5 gallons per person per week. Filters also drastically reduce plastic pollution that ends up in community waste infrastructure and in the surrounding environment. Supplying water to impacted communities for just 6 months could use as many as 32 billion single-use plastic water bottles. Filters, depending on the brand and model, can also reduce microplastics, chlorine, and other common water contaminants. 

In September of 2022, Plastic Pollution Coalition and other leading experts and community groups submitted a Letter to the EPA outlining our recommendations for filter distribution. Over the past year, we have attended meetings with the White House Center for Environmental Quality, EPA Office of Water, and leading federal elected officials, built relationships with impacted communities and local advocacy groups, distributed education materials, and increased public involvement with a petition and campaign letter to the EPA. We are pleased to see the EPA has utilized the Lead and Copper Rule Improvement draft to take an important step towards filter use and protecting impacted communities from lead and plastic pollution.

Where the LCRI Draft Rule Falls Short

The LCRI is a big win for Filtered Not Bottled and clean water across the country. However, the draft currently falls short on key measures that community groups, scientists, federal legislators, and leading advocacy organizations, such as Natural Resource Defense Council, have been calling for to best protect the impacted communities. We are hopeful the draft will be amended to include the following key measures:

  1. Reduce the lead action level to 5 parts per billion (ppb). While the proposed rule does reduce the lead action level from 15 ppb to 10 ppb, there is no safe level of lead in drinking water and reducing the action level to 5 is critical to protect communities.
  2. Require water systems to fund full lead service line replacement. The proposed rule must be amended to require water systems to not only fund the lead service line replacement on public property, as the current version states, but also the small portions of pipe on private property connecting the public systems to households and other infrastructure.
  3. Advise against toxic plastic pipes as the replacement pipe alternative. The draft rule failed to recommend safe pipe material for replacement and did not advise against plastic pipes associated with release of microplastic and chemicals into water, including PVC and PEX (as was recommended in the Letter to the EPA submitted September 2022 and in a recent report “The Perils of PVC Plastic Pipes” authored by Beyond Plastics and Plastic Pollution Coalition).

I applaud the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to require the removal of lead pipes used for drinking water nationwide, but EPA administrator Michael Regan needs to take that one step further and advise local governments not to replace lead service lines with PVC plastic pipes. Like all plastic, PVC and CPVC contain chemical additives—some toxic and many untested for toxicity—that can leach into our drinking water. The Biden administration must ensure we don’t leap from the frying pan into the fire by replacing lead pipes with another material that threatens public health, like PVC, especially when safe alternatives exist.

— Judith Enck, former EPA Regional Administrator and current Beyond Plastics President

The EPA will be accepting public comment on the proposed rule before it is finalized in October 2024, and will also be hosting an information webinar on December 6, 2023, and a virtual public hearing on January 16, 2024.

Take Action

Making pitcher filters available to the communities most impacted by lead is a big step forward for clean water free of lead and plastic pollution. Ultimately, it’s a move that will help communities impacted by lead pipes, as well as those where plastic is produced, transported, and disposed. 

Plastic Pollution Coalition, through its Filtered Not Bottled campaign, continues to advocate for safe, sustainable solutions to address polluted drinking water, without single-use plastic. While more work is needed to ensure this language is kept in the draft rule and improved along with other key measures, today we can celebrate a positive step forward!

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In an effort to keep single-use plastics out of National Parks, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkeley (D-OR) and eleven Senate colleagues have introduced the Reducing Waste in National Parks Act. The proposed legislation would restore Obama-era guidance prohibiting the sale of single-use plastic water bottles in National Parks, as well as “the sale and distribution of other disposable plastic products to the greatest extent feasible.” Earlier this year, U.S. Representative Mike Quigley (D-IL-05) introduced a companion bill also calling to end the sale of single-use plastic bottles in parks.

Under President Obama, a similar policy had prevented the sale of an estimated 1.3 and 2 million single-use plastic water bottles in National Parks. This policy was reversed by the Trump administration in 2017.

Plastic pollution threatens our right to live in healthy communities and ability to enjoy the beauty of our national parks. Single-use plastic production threatens our nation’s most special places, and inaction to protect these spaces is unacceptable if we want to ensure our treasured national parks are safeguarded for generations to come.

— Jeff Merkley, Senator, Oregon

The action by policymakers follows a campaign led by Oceana, which sent a letter from more than 300 organizations and petition signed by thousands of individuals urging U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to ban the sale of single-use plastics on America’s public lands in 2021. 

Each year, it’s estimated that the National Parks Service has to manage about 70 million pounds of wasteful trash—that’s 155 times the weight of the Statue of Liberty. 

Eliminating single-use water bottle sales at National Parks can make a significant impact in reducing pollution in and around the parks, and also reinforce reuse and refill among the public and employees who visit and work in the parks.

Many aquariums and zoos ironically have stronger policies than National Parks to minimize the sale and distribution of single-use plastic items to protect animals and the artificial environments. It is essential that we also prioritize protecting the natural living wetlands, beaches, mangroves, grasslands, and forests protecting our parks’ wildlife and pristine places. There is no place for plastic in our National Parks, and with the introduction of “Reducing Waste in National Parks Act,” one source of plastic pollution—sale and distribution of single-use plastic items to visitors—will be significantly reduced.

— Jackie Nuñez, Plastic Pollution Coalition Advocacy and Engagement Manager

Take Action

With a United Nations Plastic Treaty now on the table, it’s important to tell the world’s biggest plastic polluter, the United States, to take a stronger stance on what could be a global, legally binding agreement. Make your voice heard, and help advocate for real solutions.