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Medical Musings: Are plastics poison?

Last Sunday an English newspaper ran a story with this headline: "Poisoned by plastic: Chemicals in water bottles and food packaging have been linked to infertility and birth defects. Scaremongering, or the truth?"

The article quotes a few people who are clearing plastics out of their lives because of reported health threats. It contains this odd statement: "If you see plastic that is soft and pliable, then it is because of phthalates. Have you ever noticed how a re-used water bottle becomes brittle over time? That is because the phthalates have leached out of it--and you have drunk them."

Well, that's scaremongering.

Plastics, of course, can be made flexible through a variety of technologies. Elastomers softened with rubber block components are replacing polyvinyl chloride in some medical tubing and intravenous bag applications, for example. And most water bottles are made of polyethylene terephthalate--not PVC.

The plastics that have been the target of public health studies are PVC (because of certain types of plasticizers) and polycarbonate (because it contains bisphenol A).

But the public at large seems to be increasingly assuming that all plastics are unsafe. Inaccurate reports from media and some members of the public add to the confusion. Also adding to the problem is the head-in-the-sand type of approach being taken by major producers of PVC and polycarbonate.

They insist that science is 100% on their side. Maybe it is, but they're losing the battle.

It seems like polarization is emerging around the issue of plastics' safety just as a political polarization has emerged in Washington, D.C. Each side is sure it's right and is digging in.

Quietly, the polycarbonate industry has stopped providing product for baby bottles and sippy cups in the United States. It's not clear anyone wanted PC for those applications anymore anyway. Hospitals are increasingly seeking alternatives to plasticized PVC for IV bags, particularly when infants are involved.

Those steps make sense to me.

Does it mean all PVC should be banned? Or that plastics have no place in the kitchen?

Of course not. Most plastics are safe. Not only are they safe, but they play an important role in maintaining the freshness and safety of food. They reduce the weight of cars, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. They are used as medical implants--even cranial implants--that save people's lives.  They provide insualtion, keeping homes warm. They can even generate electricity from the sun. Want a million more examples? They're out there.

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