Soft Plastics, Softer Science

January 01, 1999  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  The Wall Street Journal  ·  Environment

In its March 22 issue, Time magazine published an extraordinary mea culpa: "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 u se of plastic softeners. We should have made it clear that the fears about ill effects are countered by strong evidence to the contrary."

It was the second time this year that a major media outlet (the New York Times was the first) has been burned by relying on activists instead of experts on the subject of chemicals like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) that make plastic soft and pliable. Such chemicals are used in plastic wrap for food and in medical devices like IV bags, tubing and syringes. Because these applications are so vital, reporting like this can be dangerous.

Both publications were complicit in the deception. Time writer Jeffrey Kluger used the trick of citing "a growing body of evidence" but presenting almost no actual evidence. His article 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:

Charlotte Brody, head of Health Care Without Harm. 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 hadn’t looked at 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 has recently launched another scare concerning pesticides and produce. Peter Orris, identified only as a "professor of internal medicine at Cook County Hospital in Chicago."

Six years ago, Mr. Orris stated verbatim Greenpeace’s cry that "the [entire] class of chlorine-containing chemicals should be considered guilty until proven innocent." 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 it 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. Will people refuse treatment with plastic devices because Time and other media outlets have convinced them "they could make you very sick indeed"?

The New York Times’s "Eating Well" columnist, Marian Burros, wrote something of a mea culpa as well, though she waited more than two months to do so. The title of her original Jan. 13 piece, "New Studies Cause Worry About Plastic Wrap Safety," actually cited only two studies, both conducted by the less-than-impartial folks at Consumers Union and published in its magazine, Consumer Reports.

Even these studies found no evidence of danger — only that a trace amount of DEHP and a larger amount of a different plastic softener, DEHA, can leach into food from plastic wrap during cooking. "There’s no conclusive evidence that DEHA and DEHP are harmful," Consumer Reports acknowledged, but "neither is there evidence that even the low levels we found are completely safe."

After a heavy bombardment of complaints by industry and nonindustry experts, Ms. Burros on March 31 ran a column admitting she had built her original piece around just the Consumer Reports article. Yet even the original column contained information showing it never should have appeared in the first place.

Ms. Burros acknowledged that "the Society of the Plastics Industry, an industry group, says that the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have both given DEHA a clean bill of health." She also quoted the FDA’s George Pauli as saying, "There is no reason to believe DEHA is an endocrine disruptor," a chemical that harms the body’s hormonal system. And she admitted that "in 1996, the agency had said there was `insufficient evidence at this time’ to demonstrate that DEHA causes hormone disruption."

So where did she get the "worry" in her title? She eschewed the science for a few quotes from an environmental activist, Gina Solomon of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In Ms. Burros’ column, Dr. Solomon explained that insufficient evidence merely reflected an absence of studies and that studies done since 1996 indicate that "DEHA is almost certainly an endocrine disrupter." Dr. Solomon added that "DEHA has been studied in a number of species of rodents, where it has been shown to interfere with male reproductive function in all species."

Au contraire, says Robin Woo of Georgetown University’s Center for Food and Nutrition Policy: "Extensive research has yielded no peer reviewed literature that supports this statement." Why did Dr. Solomon tell Ms. Burros otherwise? "The data I was referring to was DEHP, not DEHA," she told me. She made the same denial to others who contacted her.

"So Burros misquoted you?" I asked. No answer.

Ms. Burros stuck to her guns. "I have no idea what that woman [Dr. Solomon] is talking about," she told me.

Tellingly, Dr. Solomon had tried to play down the DEHA-DEHP difference, telling me, "They are very closely related from a chemical point of view."

But they’re not. "The one point I made very clear" in his interview with Mr. Burros, the FDA’s Mr. Pauli told me, "is that you don’t want to confuse DEHA and DEHP. Not only is DEHA considered even less toxic to humans than DEHP, "but DEHP is no longer put in plastic wraps in this country," though it may show up in trace amounts.

Public fear of plastic wrap could be dangerous, too. "We’ve got some problems with bacterial contamination," says Ms. Woo, "and we need to seal our food as effectively as possible. Plastic right now is generally the best product to do so."

From the tremendously successful attack on plasticizers in toys last December on ABC’s 20/20, to Ms. Burros’s column, to Time’s article, the pattern has been the same. Without the support of science, environmentalist groups like Greenpeace and Consumers Union instead release "studies" that bypass the medical journals and go straight to sympathetic or gullible journalists. By promoting this pseudoscience, these journalists alarm — and harm — all of us.

So says a growing body of evidence.