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What's In your Water Bottle?

Mother Earth appreciates it when you and your family refill and reuse plastic water bottles, but your bodies may not. A study done at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, and published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, showed alarmingly high levels of bacteria in water bottles that were reused without being cleaned. Researchers collected 76 bottles from elementary school students and analyzed the leftover water. The amount of bacteria--which included some fecal varieties--exceeded safety standards in more than 13 percent of the bottles. The presence of fecal bacteria was likely from students not washing their hands properly.

"I was startled," says Cathy Ryan, Ph.D., assistant professor of environmental science at the University of Calgary and one of the study authors. "As a parent, I know that kids don't wash their hands well. I guess I didn't think it would have that immediate an effect."

The other types of bacteria were simply those that like to grow in relatively warm and moist places.

It's not only bacterial contamination you need to worry about if you're one of the 88 percent of bottled water drinkers who reuses a plastic bottle for weeks--or even months--before replacing it. As a graduate student at the University of Idaho, Deena Lilya investigated the safety of reusing bottles made with polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

PET is a plastic often used to make drinking water bottles. You can tell if yours is one by looking for the number "1" in a recycling stamp on the bottom of the bottle. The United States Food and Drug Administration has approved these containers for one-time use only.

Lilya, who now holds a master's degree in environmental engineering, subjected the bottles to heat, ultraviolet light, and manual pressure meant to replicate the way you squeeze the plastic when you drink. Over a period of time--anywhere from a few days to a few weeks--unhealthy compounds, including some that are carcinogenic, leached into the water from the plastic, her study showed.

So what to do? At home, Ryan rotates a supply of 10 wide-mouthed water bottles--the kind manufacturers intend to be reused--and cleans them regularly with hot soapy water. She allows them to dry completely between uses to eliminate bacterial growth.

Lilya, on the other hand, still reuses her PET bottles, but limits their life span to less than a week and keeps them out of the heat and sun. "If you can taste the plastic in the water you're drinking, that's not a good sign," she says.

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