Politics before science: Are environmentalists waging a plastic campaign against plastics?

By Daniel T. Oliver
web posted May 15, 2000

It's been a year since ABC's 20/20 program aired a controversial story titled "Do Chemicals in Plastic Taint Our Food?" The April 19, 1999 segment featured an interview with Dr. Edward Groth, a scientist with the consumer watchdog group Consumers Union, who discussed the results of a study the organization had just completed on plastic bottles and teethers.

Groth said that when the bottles were heated for 30 minutes with simulated formula, they leached minute quantities of a chemical called bisphenol-A, or BPA. This, he explained, could cause "a disruption of the developmental process. This could affect intelligence. It could affect behavior. It could affect learning ability. It could affect reproductive ability, fertility many years after the exposure."

That same day, Consumers Union released the study's results in its widely read Consumer Reports magazine. The study also noted that diisononyl phthalate (DINP), a member of the phthalate (THAL-ate) family of chemicals, is often used in teethers to impart softness and flexibility to otherwise brittle plastic. It warned that "administered to lab animals at high doses, DINP has caused cancer and damaged the liver, kidneys and other organs."

Significantly, the complete findings and methodology of the study were not published, nor was the study peer reviewed. A month after the study appeared, George Pauli, director of the division of product policy at the Food and Drug Administration, stated that "with baby bottles, we haven't been able to detect bisphenol A if we use reasonable extraction techniques.... We have evaluated [food contact uses of bisphenol A] in a thorough manner, and concluded its use is safe."

Nonetheless, many parents, on seeing the 20/20 broadcast and reading the Consumer Reports article, no doubt disposed of their children's plastic baby bottles and teethers. Consumer Reports recommended that parents switch to bottles made of polyethylene, an opaque plastic that does not leach BPA, and -- remarkably -- breakable glass. Many toy retailers also began removing plastic toys from their shelves. But were such drastic steps necessary?

An Anti-Chlorine Campaign

The 20/20 broadcast and the Consumer Reports article are only the most publicized incidents in a decade-long attack on chlorine, a natural element used in the manufacture of vinyl plastic, or PVC (polyvinyl chloride). Greenpeace fired the opening salvo in 1991 with a report titled The Product Is the Poison: The Case for a Chlorine Phase-Out. It warned that dangerous levels of dioxins and furans, a class of compounds produced as byproducts of combustion processes involving chlorine (e.g., the manufacture and incineration of vinyl plastic), have entered the air, soil and water and pose a grave threat to the safety of the food supply. More recently, environmental groups have claimed that phthalate esters, or plasticizers -- the compounds used to make vinyl plastic soft and flexible -- may cause cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, infertility and other health problems.

In fact:

  • For 40 years, physicians and epidemiologists have studied industrial workers and others exposed to abnormally high amounts of what is believed to be the most toxic dioxin -- 2,3,7,8-tetra-chlorodi-benzo-p-dioxin (TCDD). They have been unable to definitively attribute any cancers or deaths to such exposure. Nor have they found reproductive problems or birth defects to be associated with high-level dioxin exposure. The only documented health effect of dioxin is chloracne, a non-life-threatening skin condition that often disappears when dioxin exposure ceases.
  • Plastics softeners have also been subjected to extensive toxicity and safety testing, and no study has conclusively demonstrated any adverse health affect in humans. The Consumer Products Safety Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, Health Canada, the World Health Organization and a blue-ribbon panel of independent scientists headed by former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop have all concluded that there is insufficient evidence to classify any plastics softener as a human carcinogen under normal use.

At the urging of Greenpeace International and other environmental groups, the European Commission (EC) recently announced a ban on phthalates in certain toys in response to a study by the EC's scientific panel. The ban, which took effect December 18, 1999, applies to all member countries of the European Union. But Carol Dawson, a former commissioner of the Consumer Products Safety Commission and senior advisor to Consumer Alert, argues that the EC, goaded by environmental groups, deconstructed the study to suit its longstanding intention to enact a ban. The chairman of the scientific panel, Dr. James Bridges of the University of Surrey in England, expressed "surprise" upon hearing of the ban and said there had been a "gross misuse" of the panel's findings.

  • According to the EPA, only 3,000 grams of dioxin TEQ (toxic equivalency) are emitted from known sources annually in the U.S. This is equal to a six-and-a-half pound bag of sugar. The average adult is exposed to only one to three trillionths of a gram of dioxin per kilogram of body weight per day -- the equivalent of one human hair compared to all the hair on all the heads of all the people in the world. Moreover, estimated emissions of dioxins and furans fell 75 percent between 1987 and 1995. And new EPA standards for municipal, medical and hazardous waste incinerators will likely reduce dioxin air emissions by 95 percent and emissions to water by more than 90 percent.

The claimed dangers of chlorine should also be measured against its demonstrated benefits. Quite simply, the use of chlorine has immeasurably improved human life. Chlorinated drinking water has eliminated cholera, dysentry and thyphoid. Chlorinated pesticides allow farmers to grow inexpensive fruits and vegetables. Chlorinated compounds help produce lifesaving pharmaceuticals. And vinyl plastic provides an array of durable and inexpensive consumer and medical products, including fire-resistant electrical cords, IV and blood bags, computer keyboards and components, water pipes and upholstery.

Lois Marie Gibbs, executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a key organization working for a chlorine phase-out, has warned that "dioxin is a terribly lethal substance that can be eliminated from our environment by making simple changes in manufacturing and waste disposal processes." Yet chlorine, the source of dioxin, is a natural element. As the New York City-based American Council on Science and Health notes, "Chlorine is not only a constituent of man-made products but also is found in abundance in nature in the same formulations. It could no more easily be banned than sunlight or aflatoxin, a natural carcinogen produced by mold." In fact, according to the EPA, the fourth largest source of dioxin in the air is forest, brush and straw fires.

Health, Environment & Justice

Founded in 1981 in the wake of the Love Canal "crisis," the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ) works to mobilize and train activists to demand action on what it considers environmental hazards. Based in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Falls Church, Virginia, the group was once called the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste.

With 1998 revenue of $1.7 million, CHEJ claims to have worked with more than 10,000 grassroots organizations nationwide. The Charles Stewart Mott and Turner foundations recently awarded CHEJ grant money to provide "mini-grants" of between $500 and $5,000 to grassroots groups for training and coalition building activities. In 1998, CHEJ awarded $76,150 to 30 groups. See the list of other recent CHEJ donors at right.

CHEJ's Lois Gibbs was a key organizer of the 1980 federal relocation of 900 families living near Love Canal, New York, near Niagara Falls. The Love Canal "crisis" began in 1978 when a local newspaper ran several stories that raised concerns about illnesses among families living near a toxic chemical dump around the former canal. The following year, a scientist with the Roswell Park Memorial Institute in Buffalo claimed to have found higher rates of birth defects and miscarriages among Love Canal residents. The incident helped spur the creation of the federal government's Superfund toxic cleanup program in 1980.

But a 1980 study by a blue-ribbon panel of scientists appointed by New York Governor Hugh Carey concluded that "there has been no demonstration of acute health affects linked to exposure to hazardous wastes at the Love Canal site." Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan of the American Council on Science and Health notes that "nearly 20 years have passed since the blue-ribbon panel findings -- and there is still no evidence of an increased incidence of disease or birth defects associated with exposure to the Love Canal chemicals."

CHEJ nonetheless continues to keep the Love Canal incident alive. Gibbs said in a recent speech that 56 percent of children born at Love Canal in the 1970s had birth defects. In 1998, CHEJ "took advantage of media interest in the twentieth anniversary of the Love Canal crisis" by releasing Love Canal: The Story Continues, an update of an older autobiographical account by Gibbs with a foreword by Ralph Nader. It also helped generate stories in major newspapers and on CBS Sunday Morning, Good Morning America, National Public Radio and NBC Nightly News. In 1998, the Heinz Family Foundation awarded Gibbs the Heinz Award for the Environment for her work at Love Canal. (The $250,000 award was split with another activist.)

CHEJ activities include:

  • Organizing and leadership training to "advise individuals on how to build a strong, locally-controlled organization or coalition, how to enlist the support of the media and public opinion, and how to hold their elected officials accountable."
  • Scientific and technical assistance to "guide thousands of concerned people through a step-by-step process of investigating what may be contaminating their air, water or soils."
  • Research and information, including distribution of nearly 150 information packs and guidebooks; Everyone's Backyard, a quarterly magazine "that educates thousands on issues of public health, environmental problems and community organizing"; and Environmental Health Monthly, a newsletter to "inform health professionals and community leaders on the most recent research on the health effects that result from chemical exposures in community settings."

Grassroots Victories

There is little doubt that CHEJ's support of grassroots groups has had an impact. In 1998 alone, CHEJ celebrated the following "victories" as part of its Stop Dioxin Exposure Campaign:

  • St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment stopped Shintech, a Japanese company, from building a $700-million PVC plant in Convent, Louisiana. Greenpeace (see side article, page 4) also helped to halt the construction.
  • The NAACP of Greater Harrisburg and Harrisburg Residents Against Bio-Oxidation stopped the construction of a medical waste treatment facility. CHEJ claims that incinerating IV bags and other vinyl plastic medical waste releases dangerous amounts of dioxin into the air. But according to the EPA, medical waste incineration releases only 150 grams TEQ (toxic equivalency) of dioxin annually -- a mere 5.5 ounces. And as noted, new EPA standards for waste incinerators will reduce current dioxin air emissions by 95 percent.
  • The Sierra Club of Georgia and the Lumpkin County Citizens for Responsible Waste Management persuaded the city of Dahlongea to reject a proposal for a new waste treatment facility.
  • The Washington Toxics Coalition, Seattle Citizens for Quality Living and the Community Coalition for Environmental Justice pressured a Veterans Administration Hospital and the Northwest Hospital in Seattle to stop burning medical waste on site.
  • Sixteen local groups won out-of-court settlements with Stone Container Corporation that require it to implement a new pollution-prevention program at its mill in Missoula, Montana and to pay $650,000 in penalties and clean-up costs.
  • Tri-Community Preservation helped defeat a proposal to build an asphalt production facility in Kent County, Maryland.
  • The Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund blocked the issuance of a license for a low-level radioactive waste dump in Sierra Blanca, Texas.

In The American People's Dioxin Report, CHEJ says that "phasing out dioxin will require substantial technological and economic transformation." Indeed, CHEJ calls for the closing of all municipal solid waste incinerators (the largest source of known dioxin air emissions), medical waste incinerators and hazardous waste incinerators. It also calls for a phase-out of chlorine-based pesticides (96 percent of crop-protection chemicals are chlorine-based), the elimination of chlorine in oil and gas refining and metallurgical processes such as secondary copper smelting, an end to coal burning and backyard trash burning, and a complete phase-out of PVC products.

CHEJ gives no indication of how this wish-list can be achieved and what it would cost. Regarding chlorine in petroleum refining, for example, it simply commands, "Find alternatives which prevent the addition of chlorine and chlorinated compounds throughout the processing systems and related activities."

Health Care Without Harm

A major new CHEJ initiative is Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), an "international collaborative campaign to eliminate pollution in health care practices without compromising safety or care." CHEJ organizes and finances this 200-organization coalition that seeks to eliminate dioxin and mercury emissions in health care practices by stopping "non-essential" medical waste incineration and phasing out medical products that contain PVC and mercury. For a listing of prominent HCWH members, see page 6.

In 1998, HCWH held high-visibility demonstrations at several medical waste incineration plants, including ones in Ann Arbor, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Massachusetts, New York, Oakland, Seattle and several foreign countries. In HCWH's words, "This activism has created an atmosphere that makes it extremely difficult for hospitals to choose to install new incinerators or upgrade their old ones."

HCWH contends that PVC "leaches harmful chemicals into patients' bodies when used for IV bags and tubing" and that "health care practices, especially medical waste incineration, are a leading source of dioxin and mercury emissions." The exact culprit, it claims, is di-2-ethylhexyl-phthalate (DEHP), another plastics softener. Yet Baxter Health Care Corporation, a major producer of IV bags, recently convened a panel of internationally renowned toxicologists and carcinogenists from the United States and Europe to review studies on DEHP in medical products. It concluded that DEHP "poses no significant or demonstrable carcinogenic risk to humans."

Moreover, four internationally prominent epidemiologists recently reviewed numerous clinical trial reports, including ones for DEHP, and concluded that "there is no epidemiological evidence to suggest that peroxisome proliferation in general, or DEHP specifically, increases the risk of cancer in humans." (Peroxisome proliferation is a process that can cause liver cancer in mice and rats but does not occur in human liver cells exposed to DEHP.) The FDA also states that "IV bags, blood administration sets and other uses of PVC, including dialysis tubing, are safe." In fact, dialysis patients -- heavy users of IV bags -- do not have higher rates of liver cancer than the general population.

The Vinyl Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based association of vinyl manufacturers, notes that PVC "is the only material that meets the criteria for flexibility, strength, sterilization, resistance to kinking, optical clarity and cost-effectiveness required for widespread uses in medical settings." Lecon Woo, a scientist at Baxter International Inc., notes that PVC substitutes either lack vinyl's clarity and flexibility or melt at 250 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at which IV fluids must be sterilized. One substitute bag exists that can be sterilized with gamma radiation, but it costs twice as much as PVC bags. Moreover, red blood cells stored in PVC bags last about 40 days -- twice as long as cells kept in other bags. The blue-ribbon review panel headed by C. Everett Koop notes that the elimination of PVC bags "without a suitable substitute could pose a significant health risk to some individuals."

In late 1999, HCWH helped persuade Baxter International, the largest medical supply producer in the U.S., to set 2010 as a target date for phasing out PVC in at least some of its medical products. Joseph Di Gangi, a scientist with Greenpeace, remarked, "This is great news. Baxter is joining the ranks of forward-thinking companies who recognize there is no future in PVC. We believe this will encourage more businesses to phase out vinyl."

Yet Baxter emphasizes that it believes PVC is safe and that it has already spent $200 million over the last two decades to develop alternative plasticizers, not because of health concerns but because some drugs cannot be appropriately packaged in PVC. Baxter says, "We are profoundly disappointed in the misrepresentations that have been made in recent days concerning Baxter's materials development efforts and its use of polyvinyl chloride products. The recent statements made by activist groups are inaccurate."

In 1999, HCWH also played a role in persuading three institutional investors -- the Sisters of Saint Francis, Medical Mission Sisters and the Service Employees International Union Master Trust -- to pressure Tenet Healthcare Corp. to look for alternatives to PVC. Tennet is the second-largest for-profit hospital chain and one of the largest health-care buying groups in the U.S. Yet Tenet spokesman Harry Anderson notes, "We can't say with certainty we will find products to substitute in the near future."

Catholic Healthcare West, Kaiser Permanente and Universal Health Services have also made similar pledges to phase out PVC. A lone voice, the shareholders at Abbott Laboratories, soundly rejected a recent proposal to phase out production of PVC products.

A recent op-ed in Plastics News notes, "This isn't a case where critics really expect the companies to change. Instead, it's a game of perception and spin control that they hope will give PVC a black eye, and will turn public sentiment against all vinyl products."

"An Incredible Waste"

Advocates of a chlorine and PVC ban overlook the fact that finding alternatives, if any, will require time-consuming and costly comparative risk assessment to meet FDA approval. This will be necessary even though chlorine and vinyl plastic are already available and have been safely used for decades. A switch to ozone for treating drinking and waste water would cost an estimated $6 billion annually, and ozone is not as effective as chlorine. A study by Charles River Associates estimates that a phase-out of chlorinated pesticides would cost U.S. consumers $22.1 billion annually. And a 1993 industry-sponsored study estimates the cost of a total chlorine ban at $100 billion annually.

Many environmental activists may well have genuine concerns about chlorine, PVC, plastics softeners and dioxin. But Albert C. Kolbye, former assistant U.S. Surgeon General and former president of the International Society of Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, offers another thought about their motivations: "Many bureaucrats, consumer and environmental organizations, plaintiff trial lawyers, politicians and researchers... have financial, political or power interests in claiming that dioxin-like compounds are causing much more severe problems to human health than objective scientific scrutiny of the evidence would support."

Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop makes another point. The latest environmental scare "ultimately diverts our attention from real opportunities to enhance life and longevity. In short, what an incredible waste of time, resources and human potential."

Daniel T. Oliver is a research associate at the Capital Research Center and editor of Alternatives in Philanthropy. Reprinted with the kind permission of the CRC.

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