Safe Plastics, Poisonous Journalism

By Michael Fumento

April 11, 1999
Copyright 1999 Michael Fumento

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It was an extraordinary mea culpa.

In its March 22 issue, Time magazine declared:

Time regrets that our report on concerns about plastics ["Poisonous Plastics?" March 1] did not include the observations of scientists and public health groups that have found no significant risk of human health effects from the use of plastic softeners. We should have made it clear that the fears about ill effects are countered by strong evidence to the contrary.

The magazine was severely burned by a reporter who chose to base his entire piece on activist quotes, rather than scientific expertise, on the subject of chemicals like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) that make plastic soft and pliable.

We all use such products daily. Sometimes, as with vinyl car seats, they’re just convenient. But when used in medical devices like IV bags, tubing and syringes, or in plastic wraps that protect food from harmful bacteria, they’re literally life-savers. Bad reporting that makes people avoid them threatens those lives.

Time’s writer, Jeffrey Kluger, began by using the trick of citing "a growing body of evidence" but provided no real evidence at all. This "growing body" purported to show that "the chemicals that make up many plastics may migrate out of the material and into foods and fluids, ending up in your body. Once there they could make you very sick indeed."

That is "what a group of environmental watchdogs has been saying, and the medical community is starting to listen," Mr. Kluger wrote, citing four sources. But here they are:

  • Charlotte Brody, head of Health Care Without Harm (HCWH). Time identified this as an "advocacy group," with no mention that it’s an environmental coalition, comprising groups ranging from the Chemical Impact Project to Greenpeace. There are a few mainstream groups in HCWH, such as the American Nurses Association and Catholic Healthcare West, but when I interviewed their representatives it was clear they were clueless about the science.

ANA spokesman Michael Stewart told me that "patients undergoing hemodialysis [having their blood filtered by machine] are at particular risk" from plastic softeners in tubing.

Wrong.

Although a medical journal review published in 1996 analyzed almost 500 studies and concluded that dialysis patients have the highest exposure of any medical patients to the plastic softener DEHP, it also estimated they receive at most one-eighth of the amount of DEHP that proved safe in rodents. "An actual threat to humans . . . seems rather unlikely," it concluded. In fact, FDA official Bruce Burlington says, "We believe that IV bags, blood administration sets and the other uses of PVC, including dialysis tubing, are safe."

Catholic Healthcare West spokeswoman Susan Vickers admitted her lack of expertise but said her organization was heavily influenced by a report from Greenpeace. Greenpeace leads the environmentalist war against chlorine-based chemicals, including plastic softeners, unfurling banners on buildings declaring "Chlorine Kills" and issuing "fact sheets" with names like "Chlorine: The Devil’s Chemical."

  • Consumers Union, an advocacy group that aided the Alar scare of 1989 and in February launched yet another scare concerning pesticides and produce. (See Michael Fumento’s work on Alar.)

  • Peter Orris, identified only as a "professor of internal medicine at Cook County Hospital in Chicago." There was no mention that Orris represents the Great Lakes Center for HCWH. Nor did Time note that six years ago, Orris stated verbatim Greenpeace’s cry that "the [entire] class of chlorine-containing chemicals should be considered guilty until proven innocent, nor that last year, he sent an open letter to Vice President Al Gore condemning the use of plastic softeners.

  • For "balance," Mr. Kluger cited a flyer from Abbott Laboratories, which he identified as a "polyvinyl chloride maker." Abbott shot off an angry letter to Time, stating it doesn’t make PVC, but does use PVC in its products because it has "a superlative 40-year record of safe and effective use in the health-care industry."

One cheer to Time for acknowledging its mistake, and two jeers for fomenting fear by running the story in the first place. How many people will refuse treatment with plastic devices and possibly die — because Time and other media outlets have faithfully conveyed the Greenpeace-HCWH propaganda?

Already the activists have claimed a victory in that the world’s largest producer of blood and intravenous bags, Baxter International, agreed April 7 to eventually phase-out use of PVC in its products.

Sure, it’s probably more PR than anything else. For one, Baxter has set no deadlines; Theoretically, the phase-out might not even begin until those proverbial pigs fly.

Further, it has promised merely that, "In instances where the overall performance and safety of another material is proven superior to PVC and regulatory clearance is obtained, Baxter will offer an alternative." There’s enough wiggle room in there to accommodate King Kong. It’s possible Baxter will never find a superior alternative.

Finally, Baxter did rip Greenpeace and HCWH in an official statement for issuing widely-distributed press releases making Baxter’s decision appear to be health-based, and not strictly a business decision in reaction to Greenpeace and HCWH’s own activities.

But a Greenpeace spokesman may have been correct in saying of Baxter’s ploy, "’The dominoes are beginning to fall." Other medical companies will feel pressure to follow Baxter’s lead in putting "socially responsibility" before responsibility to patients. The question is whether these companies will put the lives of human beings ahead of favorable PR and corporate profits.

Read another version of this article: Soft Plastics, Softer Science (The Wall Street Journal, April 2, 1999).


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on plastics, the media and on the environment.