Polyethylene Terephthalate May Yield Endocrine Disruptors

Article excerpt

BACKGROUND: Recent reports suggest that endocrine disruptors may leach into the contents of bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PET is the main ingredient in most clear plastic containers used for beverages and condiments worldwide and has previously been generally assumed not to be a source of endocrine disruptors.

OBJECTIVE: I begin by considering evidence that bottles made from PET may leach various phthalates that have been putatively identified as endocrine disruptors. I also consider evidence that leaching of antimony from PET containers may lead to endocrine-disrupting effects.

DISCUSSION: The contents of the PET bottle, and the temperature at which it is stored, both appear to influence the rate and magnitude of leaching. Endocrine disruptors other than phthalates, specifically antimony, may also contribute to the endocrine-disrupting effect of water from PET containers.

CONCLUSIONS: More research is needed in order to clarify the mechanisms whereby beverages and condiments in PET containers may be contaminated by endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

KEY WORDS: antimony, bottled water, endocrine disruptors, leaching, phthalates, polyethylene terephthalate. Environ Health Perspect 118:445-448 (2010). doi:10.1289/ehp.0901253 [Online 25 November 2009]


Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is the material most commonly used to make the clear plastic bottles in which bottled water is sold. PET bottles are also in widespread use as containers for soda beverages, sports drinks, and condiments such as vinegar and salad dressing. PET bottles are also commonly used for the packaging of cosmetic products, such as shampoo, particularly when such products are sold in clear plastic bottles.

The potential of plastic packaging to introduce endocrine disruptors into foods and beverages has gone largely unrecognized until quite recently (Muncke 2009). The plastics industry generally asserts that PET bottles are not a source of endocrine disruptors (e.g., American Chemistry Council 2009). In this commentary, I present evidence that PET bottles may leach endocrine disruptors, and I consider the conditions under which this leaching may occur.

Synthesis of PET

The synthesis of PET begins with the esterification of either terephthalic acid or dimethyl terephthalate with ethylene glycol, yielding bis(hydroxyethyl)terephthalate (BHET). The BHET is then polymerized up to about 30 repeat units (Awaja and Pavel 2005). Next, to achieve a degree of polymerization (DP) of about 100 repeat units, polycondensation is performed at temperatures > 270[degrees]C and pressures > 50 Pa (Ravindranath and Mashelkar 1986). To produce bottle-grade PET, the DP must be > 150 repeat units, which is typically accomplished via solid-state polymerization, a process that requires temperatures > 200[degrees]C, pressures > 100 Pa, and incubation times of at least 15 hr (Al-Ghatta et al. 1997).

It is becoming increasingly common for manufacturers to market copolymers for purposes previously filled by homopolymer PET. Copolymer blends, such as polybutylene terephthalate/PET, have certain advantages over homopolymer PET with regard to mechanical properties and resistance to degradation (Grossetete et al. 2000; Guerrica-Echevarria and Eguiazabal 2009). In the United States, a clear plastic bottle may be made with copolymers and still be legally marketed as PET, according to applicable federal regulations [e.g., 21 CFR [section]177.1630 (U.S. Food and Drug Administration 2009).


The term "phthalates" refers to the diesters of 1,2-benzenedicarboxylic acid, better known as phthalic acid. A growing literature links many of the phthalates with a variety of adverse outcomes, including increased adiposity and insulin resistance (Grun and Blumberg 2009), decreased anogenital distance in male infants (Swan et al. 2005), decreased levels of sex hormones (Pan et al. …