A new study conducted by government laboratories reveals the presence of deadly chemicals in the plastic bottles used for soft drinks and alcoholic beverages.

The report, which has not yet been made public, reveals the extent to which chemical contaminants can be found in PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles used by the soft drink industry. Another recent report in Business Standard has already shown that plastic bottles used by the pharma industry for medicines have toxic chemicals.

The latest study was conducted by the Him Jagriti Manch, an NGO based in Uttarakhand, which has now petitioned the National Green Tribunal (NGT) seeking a ban on the use of PET bottles. It carried out the tests at government laboratories. It tested juices, beverages, alcohol and oil packaged in PET bottles.

The results, which are available with this columnist, clearly show the presence of harmful elements such as antimony, lead and cadmium. Their presence is far in excess of the prescribed standards (as per the standards for packaged water and mineral water standards, i.e., IS: 13428: 2005). The presence of diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) has been measured as per the US-EPA standards. The tests were conducted by the National Test House, Kolkata, and the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research, Lucknow.

The results show that many of the metals and DEHP migrated from the plastic/PET bottles to the products. The tests further indicate that higher temperatures cause leaching of such harmful chemicals into the content of the bottles.

The earlier study, in relation to medicines in plastic bottles, was conducted by the government’s All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, Kolkata, at the instance of the health ministry. It found that lead, antimony, DEHP and chromium had leached into the five liquid medicine formulations that were tested.

DEHP is an endocrine disruptor that is also carcinogenic and is already banned in many countries, including France and Denmark. Antimony leads to increased blood pressure and heart muscle damage, lead results in kidney damage, and cadmium causes respiratory tract infections.

Why is the government not doing anything about this? First is the absence of standards: in the case of carbonated drinks or tomato ketchup or even alcoholic beverages in plastic bottles, the safety limits of certain chemicals such as antimony and DEHP are not mentioned. The Bureau of Indian Standards does not take into consideration migration of the said chemicals into the food items. For instance, if recycled plastics are used even in small quantities in the manufacture of food and beverage packs, they cause major harm to human health by leaching into the edible content.

Keeping all this in mind, in 2013, the Him Jagriti Manch approached the health ministry, seeking a ban on the use of PET bottles for medicines, soft drinks and alcohol.

In 2014, the Indian Council for Medical Research concluded that leaching from plastic bottles had been demonstrated in various studies, and that these bottles should not be used for drugs meant for children and pregnant women. But the pharma and the plastic packaging lobbies have opposed the ban, arguing that the results are not substantive. Even as this tussle between the government and the plastic industry continues, it is the NGT that will finally decide on the matter.

Meanwhile, petroleum and natural gas minister Dharmendra Pradhan has announced an ambitious plans of doubling the current per capita consumption of plastics from the present 10kg per person to 20kg by 2022, thus indicating the binary thoughts within the government.

So, on this world environment day (5 June), let us turn our attention to the plastic bottles containing soft beverages, even medicines.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World.

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