Back in 2003, a writer for St. Olaf College's newspaper, the Manitou Messenger, asked: "Are there any college students who can live without that precious lump of indestructible plastic known as the Nalgene bottle?" Indeed, until recently, a refillable Nalgene bottle -- most often plastered with stickers from the student's favorite band or political cause -- was the accessory of choice for undergraduates across the country. But in 2008, studies came out questioning plastic bottle safety, by linking bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical found in hard plastic products, with health and environmental risks. Suddenly, everyone's favorite reusable water bottle looked a lot less thirst-quenching.

 

BPA is simply the latest chemical to fall under wide public scrutiny for the harmful potential dangers hiding under the surface (remember DDT in the 1960s and CFCs in the 1980s?). First synthesized in 1891, and widely used in commercial products for more than half a century, recent animal tests have raised some questions about BPA's potential as a "disruptor for the human hormonal system." In April 2008, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Toxicology Program expressed "some concern" about BPA's human impact -- especially in the neural and behavioral effects for infants, fetuses, and prepubescent children. The chemical has also been linked in studies to ovarian dysfunction in woman and an increased likelihood of developing type II diabetes. Meanwhile, environmental studies have indicated that BPA could potentially interfere with the nitrogen uptake in legumes and other plants, and also be harmful to marine life, if it contaminates water sources. Not surprisingly, however, the vast majority of controversy around the chemical has centered around human health, rather than ecological concerns.

 

The Canadian government has identified BPA as a toxic substance under its environmental protection act, which translates to regulations against selling, importing or advertising infant products (such as bottles) that contain the chemical. Most retailers in Canada have obliged, removing any food-related BPA item from their stores -- even though the risk to people older than 18 months was deemed "negligible."

 

In the United States, the official response has been less decisive, and muddled by an FDA safety assessment conducted in August 2008 that declared BPA safe as currently used. Many scientists and environmental watchdog groups have called the FDA's assessment flawed, and are calling for additional research. But American consumers aren't waiting around for the government to make up its mind about plastic bottle safety. In the wake of the debate, an industry has sprung to life, as manufacturers jump to claim their reusable bottles -- made from stainless steel, or BPA-free plastic -- as safer and more eco-friendly methods of water consumption. "Last year at this time we couldn't pay anyone to take our stainless-steel bottles," Sloan Russell, the president of Guyot Designs, told the New York Times in November. This year, Guyot's projected bottle sales hover around $3 million, compared with $60,000 just one year ago.

 

BPA's ubiquity in household products -- everything from dental sealants to tin can linings -- makes it essentially impossible to fully avoid. But for consumers looking for a BPA-free gulp, there are plenty of ways to stay hydrated, without adding to the 38 billion disposable water bottles that end up in landfills every year. Here are a few:

 

Amphipod, Hydraform Handheld

Ergonomically designed to comfortably fit a runner's hand, these sleek sport bottles start at $14.

www.amphipod.com

 

Camelbak

Best-known by hikers and bikers for their hydration backpacks, Camelbak also has a line of BPA-free water bottles that range in price from $8-$14.

www.camelbak.com

 

Glass jars

Refilling a glass Mason jar is simple, cheap (about $9 for a dozen jars), Earth- and body-friendly, and will make it look like you're just taking a quick water break after tending your organic farm all morning.

 

Guyot Designs

Guyot's collection of stainless steel water bottles, all $25, are carbon-negative, which means the company has purchased enough energy offsets to more than make up for the carbon released during the making and shipping of their bottles.

www.guyotdesigns.com

 

Klean Kanteen

Klean Kanteen claims to be the original stainless steel water bottle on the market, launched "way back" in 2004. The company makes a variety of bottles, including sippy cups for kids ($18), adult-sized canteens ($26) and even carry-along wine carafes ($21)

www.kleankanteen.com

 

Nalgene

Nalgene is in the process of phasing out its controversial bottles, and already carries several BPA-free models (varying prices).

www.nalgene-outdoor.com

 

Platypus

Offering both collapsible bottles ($7 and up) and "hands-free" hydration packs ($18 and up), Platypus designs are geared toward hikers, runners, campers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

www.platypushydration.com

 

Reuse it!

OK, so in a fit of desperate thirst you bought a disposable plastic water bottle. It happens to the best of us. Redeem yourself by refilling that bottle as many times as possible before chucking it into the recycling bin.

 

Rubbermaid Chug Bottles

You won't get a lot of street cred toting around one of these homely bottles, but for $5, they're a sweet, BPA-free deal.

www.rubbermaid.com

 

Sigg

The country that brought us Swiss cheese and amazing chocolate also makes stainless steel water bottles. The wide variety of colors and styles available (prices hover around $25) ensures that there's a Sigg for every member of the family.

www.mysigg.com

 

Swellz

Custom-made to look and function like old-fashioned canteens, Swellz cost about $35 and can be purchased at select retailers or directly from the company. Leather-eschewing vegetarians beware: Swellz are made out of latex (interior) and leather (exterior).

www.swellz.com

 

Think Sport

These stainless steel bottles are lightweight and stylish, and range in price from $18-$22.

www.thinksportbottles.com