The Plastics Revolution

It Changed Our World. But Are We Trading Safety for Convenience?

(By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)   |   Buy Photo
By Ranit Mishori
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 22, 2008; Page HE01

When people say plastics are everywhere, they really mean everywhere: in the containers that hold your food; in the pipes that carry your water; in the bottles you use to feed your infant; in windows frames, shower curtains and raincoats; on your head in the form of safety helmets; on your face in the form of eyeglasses; in your hands when you talk on a phone or type on a keyboard. They're in clothing; they're in toys; they're in bandages, lipstick and nail polish.

So ubiquitous. So useful. And, some say, so dangerous.

Many scientists and environmental advocates believe man-made components in plastics -- particularly a group of compounds called phthalates and another hormonally active chemical known as bisphenol A, or BPA -- can leach harmful chemicals that get absorbed into our bodies. Some blame plastics for increased rates of cancer, asthma, neurological disorders and infertility.

Those fears, debated for more than a decade, were ratcheted up last week by two events: A draft report by the National Toxicology Program acknowledged for the first time "some concern" that BPA may affect neural and behavioral development "in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures." The federal health agency's report included early puberty in girls and hyperactivity among these developmental disturbances. And Health Canada, the main government health department for that country, designated BPA as a "dangerous substance," moving Canada a step closer to limiting the chemical's use.

"The health impacts associated with these chemicals are very severe," says Michael Schade of the Center for Health Environment and Justice (CHEJ), an advocacy group that wants these components banned from consumer products.

Some government and academic experts agree. People worried about chemicals in plastic aren't just "nervous Nellies," says Lynn Goldman, a professor of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Others, led by the plastic and vinyl industry, say recent reports are nothing but a scare campaign. "It is . . . foolish to ban something that's safe and has proven itself for decades," says Allen Blakey, a spokesman for the Vinyl Institute, an industry group. Blakey dismisses the main evidence of harm cited by the anti-plastic camp -- a set of studies that involved mostly animal subjects -- as "flimsy."

The financial stakes are huge: Plastics is the country's third-largest manufacturing industry, employing 1.1 million workers and producing nearly $379 billion worth of goods each year, according to the Society for the Plastics Industry.

The battle lines are clear. But not the science.

Before last week's report, independent panels sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Food and Drug Administration examined the data on plastics safety and drew conflicting conclusions. Michael Shelby, an official with the National Toxicology Program, calls the debate over plastics safety "very polarized."

"Similar to the tobacco companies" is how Schade describes the chemical industry's tactics in defense of plastics, including "hiring scientists to put out questionable studies."

"A political campaign by extremist groups to demonize materials that have been very useful" is what Blakey calls the anti-plastics movement.

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