Potshots from the Purveyors of Plasticizer Panic

January 01, 1999  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Plastics

A panel of top researchers has just issued a report on whether chemicals in plastic toys and medical devices are killing children and patients and boy are some people upset! Parents and patients, right? Wrong. Those who are hopping mad are the activists who have gotten tons of publicity (and no doubt financial contributions) from hollering about the dangers. Why? The panel gave the chemicals a clean bill of health.

These chemicals are called "plasticizers,"substances added to (normally brittle) plastics to make them soft for such things as teethers, some dolls, blood bags, and dialysis tubes. The panel comprised 16 scientists, physicians, and risk analysts assembled by the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) and former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.

Safe to say, the youths flanking Dr. Koop aren’t with the National Environmental Trust.

Industry footed the bill for the report, under the safe assumption that the anti-plasticizer powers would not.

Indeed, a week earlier these activists released their own "report," written by a single person with no medical or science degree, who had until recently been a staffer for one of the three environmentalist groups waging war against plasticizers, Greenpeace. That’s their idea of good science.

The panel report (available in its entirety at http://www.Medscape.com) concluded there’s no evidence that widely-used plasticizers DEHP or DINP (you will mercifully be spared the full names) threaten "Life as We Know It."

Rather, "DEHP, as used in medical devices, is not harmful to humans under chronic or higher-than-average conditions of exposure." Indeed, it "confers considerable benefits to certain medical devices and procedures [for example, keeping blood fresher longer] and its elimination without a suitable substitute could pose a significant health risk to some individuals."

As to DINP, "Although results of animal toxicity tests in DINP suggest the need for thorough evaluation," they said, "much of this evidence has little relevance for humans and [DINP] is not harmful for children in the normal use of these toys."

The report is thorough, including citations for 122 studies it relied upon.

Since the science is essentially unassailable, the critics instead shot spitwads at both those who assembled the panel and the panelists themselves.

The ACSH was blasted as nothing more than an industry front. And in truth, between direct donations and those funneled through industries’ foundations, most ACSH money does come from the same people whose products it defends.

But in any case, the plasticizer report is not an ACSH publication; they merely chose the panelists and provided administrative support. Most importantly, the reputations of those chosen are so great that the idea of their risking them for a few pieces of silver is absurd. For example:

  • Dr. John Higginson, now with Georgetown University Medical Center, was the founding director of the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Like many of the panelists, his resume is longer than a good-sized anaconda.
  • Lois Gold, a University of California at Berkeley biologist, is a wizard when it comes to animal studies and their implications. She maintains a web site with an exhaustive compendium of such studies and has authored a huge number of papers in the world’s top medical journals on the subject.
  • Dr. Philip Cole of the University of Alabama would be on practically anyone’s short list of the best and most influential cancer epidemiologists in the world.
  • Dr. George Lundberg was the editor of one of the nation’s two most prestigious medical journals, the Journal of the American Medical Association, from 1982 until last year. He is now editor of Medscape, the most prestigious on-line medical journal and medical research service for doctors and lay persons.

Say what you will about ACSH. Even take a potshot at Dr. Koop if you like. But these people assembled some of the best in the business, with expertise in all the right areas.

Yet a scurrilous press release from the National Environmental Trust (NET) which along with Greenpeace and the sorely-misnamed Health Care Without Harm is spearheading the plasticizer attack rips the panelists themselves.

Thus it claims dastardly Dr. Cole "is a co-author of a study which found no cancer risk from the pesticide DDT." It doesn’t say most studies of humans and DDT have found that. The EPA admits it labels DDT a "probable human carcinogen" strictly on the basis of rodent studies.

Another panelist is suspect because he "is often quoted in stories with regards to packaging as it pertains to landfills." How awful! Can’t they cane you for that in Singapore?

Lois Gold? She’s accused of having "reported on natural pesticides in peanut butter." Actually, natural pesticides are in myriad foods. But NET is confusing "pesticide" with "carcinogen." Gold has written of aflatoxin, a mold metabolite sometimes found in peanuts that is generally accepted as a human carcinogen.

If this is the best the purveyors of plasticizer panic can do, they’re tacitly admitting this was a first-class panel that could only have produced a first-class report.

It’s time for everybody to admit that scientifically this issue is settled and let the anti-science groups move on to their next fabricated fearfest.