Plastic Wars: Science Loses in Renewed Campaign Against Plasticizers

No science based agency in the US, Europe or elsewhere has found direct links between phthalates and human health. But this doesn't stop some groups from plying on consumer fears.
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No, this is not a story about great deals on credit cards, although it does entail squandering money. It's about plying on consumer fears. And it's about science literacy -- the danger of making public policy based on out-of-context facts and ideology.

Consider the latest salvo in the advocacy campaign to demonize plasticizers -- the chemical additives, also known as phthalates, that help make plastics flexible, transparent and durable enough for use in myriad ways, from cabling to pipes to vinyl products in cars to flooring, and in many personal care products and detergents.

The saga began with an announcement last summer by Friends of the Earth in Germany that it was putting "daycare centers under the microscope." The invocation of a laboratory-like investigation made the effort sound kind of science-y, but it's not. Science begins with questions, but this campaign began with predetermined answers -- and simplistic ones.

The Bund, as FoE Germany is called, launched "Future Without Poison" and a companion project, "Celebrities Against Poison," with a stated objective to prove that Germany kindergartners faced chemical castration from polyvinyl (PVC) plastics. It claimed that plasticizers used in soft plastic vinyl, electrical cabling, tumbling mats and other products commonly found in classrooms caused future sterility in males and disrupted female sexual development. It was determined to prove that kindergartens are plasticizer dust bowls.

To make its predetermined case, it enlisted volunteer sympathizers to scour their children's schools for dust. What did Bund conclude in a report, released in early April, from this mash-up of science and activism? The lab found (drum roll): "In all dust samples plasticizers were detected." Two thirds of the dust samples had higher levels of microscopic dust particles from various types of plasticizers than found in its unscientific collection of dust by activists from "typical" German homes -- presumably their own homes, but it's not clear from the summary, and Bund would not respond to my email inquiry -- while one third did not.

The complete study, which Friends of the Earth posted on the website, is discouraging to anyone with at least an 8th grade understanding of science. It was crude to the point of farcical. It made no distinction between low and high molecular weight phthalates, which have different applications and environmental and health impacts. The 60 schools from which activist sympathizers sent in dust samples were not objectively chosen -- they were self-selected by campaigners. What were the standards set for the dust collecting moms to ensure the integrity of what was collected? None.

Finding plasticizers in dust is neither surprising nor necessarily a cause for alarm. Soft plastics are ubiquitous. Plasticizers are effective and in most cases ready alternatives are not available. The only important issue is whether they might cause harm. Yet, the campaigners never directly address that hypothesis -- it is just assumed. But the evidence that phthalates cause serious harm in humans is scientifically thin.

Friends of the Earth claims that classroom dust containing microscopic plasticizers is a proxy for the release of phthalate outgasses (aka, offgasses; vapors slow released from soft plastic that campaigners claim causes everything from coughs to cancer) but there's no scientific evidence that outgasses are dangerous. Scientists have not set any limits for indoor exposures to phthalates because they've found no reason to believe they're harmful to children. Phthalate plasticizers are tightly bound within PVC, even in dust particles.

According to the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released in March, phthalates do not pose a health hazard in classrooms or in any usual way in which someone might be exposed to soft plastics. "Phthalates are metabolized and excreted quickly and do not accumulate in the body," it concluded. That reconfirmed a comprehensive study conducted in 2004 by the Children's National Medical Center and the George Washington University School of Medicine that showed no adverse effects in organ or sexual functioning in adolescent children exposed to phthalates as neonates. The same team evaluated infants in a 2010 study and reconfirmed the negative findings. A recent study has shown that even high levels of DEHP have shown no effect on the genital development of marmosets -- let alone humans.

In sum, no studies using oral doses have found evidence that plasticizers are toxic in humans or are likely to cause cancer or have strong estrogenic affects, as critics often allege. No science based agency in the US, Europe or elsewhere has found direct links to human health. The only potentially worrisome results are limited to ambiguous mammal studies in which animals have been exposed to doses hundreds of times what humans could face.

But Friends of the Earth appears disinterested in established science. It circulated its study in the form of a media release disguised as a news article, headlining, "Many German kindergartens have three times the level of dangerous chemicals than an average household, posing serious health risks to children." It claimed kindergarteners are threatened by sterility, breast cancer, testicular cancer and that their mother's face having more children with birth defects because of using gym mats and other classroom-related plastic materials.

Distressingly, the FoE report ricocheted throughout the Internet and was picked up in news reports on every continent. In not one instance did the report put the "findings" in the context of the most recent science studies. They just propagated FoE's alarmist contentions. Then no one benefits.

Jon Entine is director of the Genetic Literacy Project at Stats/George Mason University and author of Crop Chemophobia: Is Precaution Killing the Green Revolution?

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