The Pop and Problem with the Aluminum Can

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I am sitting in a plane as I write this, sipping my usual inflight beverage — a can of seltzer water. Apart from the refreshing fizz of the bubbles down my throat, it’s nothing very exciting. But did you know that this can could have far-reaching impacts on our planet and it’s animals?

The first thing to note is that my can of seltzer is just one drop in an ocean of cans. We use more than 100 billion aluminum cans every year in the U.S., well over 300 per person. That’s almost one every day for each of us.

In our newest project at the Center for Environmental Health, we decided to look at this incredibly popular package — the aluminum can. You might never have even noticed, but all aluminum cans have linings to protect both the can and the beverage inside. We tested these linings and found that almost all of them contain the chemical Bisphenol-A (BPA). We found this chemical in over 70 brands across water, soft drinks, beer, juice, and energy drink cans.

You’ve probably heard of BPA, one of the most well-known toxic chemicals in use today. BPA is notorious because it interferes with our hormones. Exposure to BPA has been linked to diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and cancer. BPA is produced in greater quantities than almost any other synthetic chemical — some experts estimate that 600 million tons are made every year. Not all of it is used in those 100 billion beverage cans — some of it is used to make things like epoxy resins, DVDs, and computers — but overall the amounts are staggering.

I just finished my seltzer water and the flight attendant is coming by to pick up my empty can. What’s next for that BPA lining? I am fortunate that I am flying tonight with an airline that recycles its cans. Of course many of us recycle our cans at home and work as well. The BPA gets melted down with the can and it’s not really clear to me what happens to it, but it’s less likely to be leaching into water or soil. However, about a third (over 30 billion) of our aluminum cans are not recycled. They end up in landfills, or tossed along roadsides and the BPA from those cans is likely to slowly leach into the environment.

BPA has been found around the world in streams, rivers, the ocean, sediments, and soil. It’s been found in fish that live in these contaminated waters. And more and more research shows that when fish and other animals are exposed to BPA, just like with humans, they end up with some scary health problems. BPA has been shown to impact fish, alligators, and frogs: it upsets normal sex ratios, damages eggs, delays hatching, reduces growth in young fish, and disrupts the transition from tadpole to adult frog.

When I look at a beverage can it’s really tempting for me to think that it’s so small and light, and the lining is so thin, that it couldn’t possibly be a problem. But no matter how small something is, when it’s multiplied by 100 billion, or even 30 billion, it becomes significant. So it’s time for a little action. What can we do?

Probably the most important thing is that beverage companies should be using safer can linings that aren’t made from hormone-disrupting or otherwise toxic chemicals. The Center for Environmental Health is committed to doing everything we can to move the chemical industry in that direction.

In the meantime, here are a few ways you can help.

First, do your best to recycle that can. You’ll be helping the whole world.

Second, think of ways to avoid the can. Refillable water bottles, making your own sparkling water, using growlers, etc will all help the whole world as well.

Third, see if your family and friends will join you. 100 billion is truly an enormous number, but little things can add up to big changes.

If you’d like to learn more about my work at the Center for Environmental Health, sign up here. Special thanks to CEH intern Zeke Somers for his generous assistance with this project.