Crying ‘wolf’ on plastics is anti-science

By Clare Goldsberry
Published: June 10th, 2013

We all remember the story of the little boy who cried ‘wolf’ so many times to get the attention of people that when a wolf actually showed up to eat him, no one paid any attention. Now a coalition, the Independent Women’s Forum, is calling out the “Mind the Store” campaign for its anti-science demands that stores rid shelves of thousands of common, safe consumer products. The Independent Women’s Forum is urging retailers to stand firm against what it says is a “well-funded, anti-science campaign of fear.”
The coalition hopes to counteract what it calls a “culture of alarmism” through a coalition letter, “signed by 23 prominent pro-freedom organizations to call out a misinformed assault on chemicals, retailers and consumers.” The letter was sent to the nation’s 10 largest retailers, urging them to stand firm against the “Mind the Store” campaign, headed by what the group calls a “radical environmental organization” (Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families) that relies on “junk science to spread fear and misinformation about chemicals.”
The Independent Women’s Forum says that “removing popular and safe products from store shelves will do nothing to improve public health.” Members of this coalition share a commitment to identifying false alarmism, flawed science, and manufactured hysteria and providing a reasonable voice to counteract efforts to limit consumer choices, stifle free-enterprise, and take away our freedoms.”
The letter to retailers pointed out how flame retardants, common in furniture and building materials, are “largely responsible for the sharp decline in household fires since the 1970s. Formaldehyde, which is used in personal care products, helps prevent bacterial growth. Phthalates are added to plastics to make toys less breakable. And bisphenol-A, a chemical used in food packaging, safeguards against deadly botulism in canned food.”
Every day each of us as business people in the plastics industry and as consumers, are called upon to do a cost-benefits analysis of almost everything we purchase. Often, the “greater good” tips the scales in favor of chemicals such as formaldehyde or bisphenol-A, because the alternative would, as the Independent Women’s Forum notes, would limit consumer choices, stifle free-enterprise, and take away our freedoms.”
There is a reason science is a critical part of our life. As journalists, we in the plastics industry trade publications business have an obligation to raise alarms when it’s necessary – when there is a “clear and present danger” to the populace. But we also have an obligation to use science when we write about plastics, chemical additives, and green materials.
Life is always about risk and reward and weighing the costs vs. the benefits. Since the development of plastic materials the benefits have far outweighed the risks or the costs in terms of better health in the medical industry; lower energy costs and less pollution in the transportation industry; safer food and beverages that keep longer; and better ways to build homes, decks, railings and fences and even textiles like carpet with materials that recycle plastics into long-lasting new products.
A ‘culture of alarmism’ doesn’t do anybody any good. Crying wolf over every product that has something in it to make it safer, stronger, lighter-weight, or creates a safer environment for our food, soon falls on deaf ears.  If people don’t know the scientific truth about these things, they soon quit believing anything they hear.  Let’s face it – living is hazardous to our health.
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Yes there are a lot of

Yes there are a lot of scientific studies that say BPA is safe. And many of them are either sponsored by the plastics industry or by the government, neither of which is exactly unbiased. In the case of the plastic industry, they have a vested interest in finding their own products to be perfectly safe. In the case of the government, given all the shenanigans they have been caught in recently, do you really trust them to judge what is safe? No, the FDA is not the NSA or the IRS. But I've seen far too many lists of Monsanto employees and FDA employees that have far too many common names. It seems like the FDA is a revolving door for employees from Monsanto and the other chemical companies as well as the pharmaceutical companies. There are some independent studies that have raised questions about BPA. Not that they have proven anything conclusively, but they raise enough questions that it seems prudent to do more 3rd party testing before we keep dumping chemicals into our bodies.

Here is one such study:

I've seen others as well. And maybe BPA and other chemicals like it have been around for a long time, but I have also noticed that the incidence of things like infertility, childhood allergies and such has increased a great deal in the last 30 years or so. When I was growing up, I didn't know a single kid that had allergies so bad they would die if they ate a peanut. And I don't remember seeing or hearing about nearly as many infertility clinics as we now have. Now some of that is because the science of treating infertility has vastly improved. But I also hear about far more people needing to undergo infertility treatment.

The bottom line is, like a lot of other "hot button" issues, the science is not as settled as the "consensus" would like everyone to believe. And bashing on groups that oppose you by calling them anti-science does not help the debate at all.

Very valid points. In

Very valid points.

In general, I'm not one to blindly trust government agencies, mostly because they're woefully underfunded, or corporations, who are driven primarily by profit motive (not a bad thing altogether, particularly if you're a shareholder).

That said, Europe puts a good deal of money into its regulatory bodies and they have given BPA a green light as recently as last year.

I think frustration for folks in the plastics industry comes out of mainstream media reports on the topic that lump all plastics together.

Bisphenol A is a chemical forerunner to only two plastics: polycarbonate and epoxy, which would make up a miniscule fraction of the plastics that consumers interact with on a day-to-day basis, particularly in food-contact contexts.

Phthalates, or DEHP based ones, which are used as plasticizers (make PVC, a naturally rigid plastic, flexible) get the same treatment. They are not part of every plastic under the sun.

Oftentimes, these materials are replaced by ones without the extensive testing history, or by ones ill-suited for certain applications.

Example: Plastic t-shirt bags, a single-use item that is imminently recyclable, get replaced by multi-use canvas. Said canvas holds raw meats, other pathogen carrying goods, and then passes that on to the apples carried the next day. E coli and salmonella, unlike BPA (which aren't, in any case, aren't in the polyethylene used to make plastic bags) are demonstrably harmful to people.

Plastics have issues, largely around their end of life, but they have become a punching bag of late and uninformed folks are pushing alternatives that do far more real harm.

Clare, thanks for the large,

Clare, thanks for the large, and necessary, dose of common sense. As an industry, we should develop our own culture of alarmism regarding the increasingly widespread perception that all plastics are toxic, not just potentially harmful, but full-on toxic. Forget that plastics became a material of choice in many fields because they are bio-inert.

I learned a new word today: plasticarian. That is, someone who purges all plastics from their life (or at least the plastics they think they know about).

Worth a read, a depressing one, but still.

Should we purge plastic from our lives?

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