Friday, July 10, 2009

So, While We Wait...

Why did it take so long to get the evidence to tie cancer to smoking?

I'm really not intending to answer that question here.

I just want to point out the process that goes into figuring out whether a substance is harmful is a very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very SLOW process.

So, while we wait, how the heck are we to know?

Let's talk about Plastics. No, this is not going to be a discussion about the movie, "The Graduate."

Plastics are 10 percent of the earth's generated waste, according to Scientific American.

A raging argument between the plastics industry and a group of scientists: are plastics harmful to humans and the environment, or not? Several studies have demonstrated harm to laboratory animals, but so far, very little concrete science is available about their impact on humans. I'm thinking it's going to be a very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very long time until we find out.

The following quotes comes from an article in Scientific American's online Journal, entitled "Plastic Not-So-Fantastic: How the Versatile Material Harms the Environment and Human Health,"

"The plastics industry maintains that its products are safe after decades of testing. 'Every additive that we use is very carefully evaluated, not just by the industry, but also independently by government agencies to look at all the materials we use in plastics,' said Mike Neal, a consumer and environmental affairs specialist at PlasticsEurope, an industry trade association...

And this excerpt:

"[O]ne study found that packaging beverages in PET (a type of plastic) versus glass or metal reduces energy use by 52 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent. And, solar water heaters containing plastics can provide up to two-thirds of a household’s annual hot water demand, reducing energy consumption."

But the other side of the story is this:

“'We have animal literature, which shows direct links between exposure and adverse health outcomes, the limited human studies, and the fact that 90 to 100 percent of the population has measurable levels of these compounds in their bodies,' said John Meeker, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and a lead author. 'You take the whole picture and it does raise concerns, but more research is needed."

Then there's this:

Shanna Swan, director of the University of Rochester's Center for Reproductive Epidemiology, conducted studies that found an association between pregnant women’s exposure to phthalates and altered genital development in their baby boys.

"Also, people with the highest exposure to BPA have an increased rate of heart disease and diabetes, according to one recent study. Animal tests studies of PBDEs have revealed the potential for damaging the developing brain and the reproductive system.Yet the effects on human health remain largely unknown. To help shed more light on the issue, the report recommends more sophisticated human studies.

"[T]esting humans for endocrine disruptors can be tricky because phthalates and BPA pass through the body so quickly. In addition, tests for each chemical cost about $100 a pop. Deciding which chemicals to test and at what dose is also an issue. To date, most studies have addressed single chemicals, and there are limited data on the interactions between chemicals. Compounding the problem is the discovery that endocrine disrupting chemicals may have effects at doses lower than those used in the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard toxicity tests."

So, while we wait, what should we do?

I don't know about you, but 10 percent of the earth's generated wastes - that's a high figure. And clearly, since it's a man-made product, it requires a man-made solution. I'm guessing that there are places where plastic is the right product for the job. But 10 percent? I think it might be a good idea to find chemical free alternatives to some of our plastic usage. Next time you go to make a purchase, consider the non-plasticized version of whatever you are after.

The article in Scientific American is a great article. If you have time, I encourage you to read the rest of the story,, and take a peak at the study the story is based on,

I'm not sure what the answer is. We are as reliant on plastic as we are on electricity. That's saying something big. I end this post with a couple of videos... the first is a news item by reporter Joe DeCarlo called "Toxic Vinyl" about some of the common objects that may be posing health risks in your home. The second is a general-topic news clip about the impact of plastics. Plus, what fun to see a very young Dustin Hoffman!


  1. As one who used to work as an attorney with the General Counsel's office at EPA, advising its pesticides and toxics programs, I know first-hand how slow the risk assessment process for evaluating chemicals is there.

    It's interesting to compare the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), in which the government must show that chemicals create "unreasonable risk" before they can regulate them, with the European Union's REACH regulation, which puts more of a burden on the chemical manufacturers to find out the risks of the chemicals they make and to use safer substitutes as they become aware of them.

    People who know about TSCA (the few of us :)) have been saying for some time that the statute needs to be fixed. If EU can develop REACH, then what's the hold-up? (Let me see if I can guess . . . would it have something to do with people who walk around Capitol Hill in loafers? :))

  2. Thanks for the comment, Debbi. I wonder why there hasn't been some effort to statutorily put the burden on the manufacturer. It should simply be an R&D cost of doing business.