A brief history of ‘toxic’ plastics: Page 2 of 2

Much of the early derision came from companies that manufactured products in materials that plastic could replace, such as paper, tin, aluminum and glass. “If pushed to it, [plastics industry association] SPI could come out swinging, especially when rival industries threatened plastic’s reputation,” writes Meikle in his book. “That happened in 1951, when the Vitrified China Association issued a report purporting, as Modern Plastics put it, “to tell about the horrible things that will happen if we eat from melamine dishes.” According to that association, melamine was soft and harbored bacteria; was water repellant and, thus, couldn’t be washed properly; and was chemically unstable, releasing formaldehyde (or embalming fluid) when subjected to hot water. “Soon, no doubt,” Modern Plastics sarcastically observed, "the citizens of the country will have an epidemic of plasticitis and the undertaker won’t even be necessary because they will already be embalmed.”

PVC has long had its detractors; however, it was of great interest to Union Carbide, which was looking for ways to exploit petroleum and natural gas, “an agenda that involved seeking uses for acetylene and ethylene. As a small part of that strategy, Joseph G. Davidson began in 1926 to explore the use of polyvinyl chloride as a substitute for tung oil. Pressed from seeds harvested in China, the oil was subject to irregular supply and price fluctuations; it also caused a skin disease among those who handled it,” writes Meikle. Obviously, even so-called natural products can cause problems, as we still see today. 

As plastic products became ubiquitous during the 1960s and 1970s, outsiders sounded the alarm on the “industry itself as an excess whose fallout was polluting the Earth . . . opponents were raising such issues as toxicity, flammability, solid waste and consumption of dwindling fossil fuels to feed insatiable refineries and molding machines,” writes Meikle. 

In 1962, Meikle notes, DuPont was forced to confront the issue of the miracle plastic Teflon, as it “moved from heavy industry into frying pans.” The biggest battle DuPont faced was the “tenacity of rumors” that surrounded Teflon, and it did so by publishing a pamphlet of scientific information explaining the “rigorous testing that established Teflon as safe for cookware. The pamphlet effectively zapped the rumor as Teflon pans went to market.”

In spite of the science lessons, “nagging doubts suggested that negative attitudes about plastic were associated with a more general fear of science that derived ultimately from nuclear anxiety,” writes Meikle.

Today, those intent on ridding the world of plastic and returning to metal, glass and paper continue their fight against the industry through fake science and rumors. In spite of the plastic industry’s years of scientific testing, there are those who continue to believe in the toxicity of plastic and that the material is the primary cause of cancer and other fearsome diseases. 

Well, I'm not afraid. To prove it, I drank my toxic, cancer-causing coffee (as determined by the People’s Republic of California) from a plastic cup as I wrote this!

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