Breast cancer survivor Akriti Sharma is on regular medication. She is apprehensive that the plastic bottles she has her medicines from could have an adverse effect on her health.

“In any case, plastics are also known to damage the environment. So, why use something which is meant to help you but can end up damaging you?”

Sharma’s concern may not be something too many consumers are aware of. But could the packaging of our medicines, indeed, push us towards more diseases? Pro-green groups and consumer activists believe so and so does the Government. Chemicals could leach into life-saving medicines if plastics are used for packaging, they say. But the plastic industry counters that plastic is a legally and globally accepted packing material.

Big impact Last year, the Drugs Technical Advisory Board (DTAB) had recommended that the pharmaceutical industry switch to glass from plastic for packaging liquid oral medicines. A senior Health Ministry official said expert opinion from the Indian Council of Medical Research further endorsed DTAB’s suggestions.

“Samples were tested and it was found to have high chemical leaching. A report is being sent to the Minister. A notification banning plastic use is expected soon,” the official says. The DTAB had said, “Many chemical additives that give plastic products desirable performance properties have grave negative environmental and human health effects.” These include direct toxicity and endocrine disruption that could lead to cancer, birth defects, immune system suppression and developmental problems in children.

Biswajit Ghosh, President, PET Container Manufacturers' Association (PCMA), however, points out, “PET bottles are not harmful. The DTAB recommendation is not based on any scientific evidence. Australia, too, has high temperatures. But, they are still using PET bottles. If the Ministry goes ahead with this ban, we are prepared to go to the court.”

Calling the ban “unjust,” IDMA President, Manish Doshi says: “PET bottles are being used widely in packaging of oral liquids and tablets in the US, Europe as well as Japan.” But, Toxics Link’s Associate Director Satish Sinha disagrees. “An important factor is the temperature variance between the US and India. Here, because of high temperatures, the possibility of leaching is more.”

Poor segregation Chandra Bhushan, Deputy Director General with the Centre for Science and Environment, cautions: “There is a tendency to re-use glass bottles and if they are not disinfected, it can result in other infections arising out of biological contaminants.”

On the other hand, consumer policy expert Bejon Misra, points out, “Medicines across the world are researched and developed under test conditions using glass apparatus and not plastic. The final quality of medicines and its efficacy are tested in a glass bottle and not plastic bottles.”

Plastic medicine bottles, in fact, go beyond affecting consumers, as pro-greens point to medical waste and plastics’ contribution to environmental hazard.

Sinha says, “Due to poor segregation practice of medical waste, plastic bottles often end up in yellow bags designated for incineration. This is a serious concern because Indian rules restrict the burning of plastic as it generates dioxin and furans.”