How dangerous plastics freely work their way into your house

May 1, 2008 | By | 13 Replies More

I was in a bad mood after I wrote a post summarizing a recent Harpers Magazine article demonstrating that the United States government is working hard to keep its citizens from knowing whether numerous commonly used chemicals are dangerous.

After all, our government is supposed to be there to protect us yet it appears that our government is, instead, kissing up to the chemical manufacturers, allowing them to dump highly questionable substances into the products American consumers purchase and use.

And now, I’m in a worse mood. I just finished reading an extraordinary article called “You Are What You Drink Out Of,” by Nadia Pflaum. This article appeared in a local alternative St. Louis newspaper called the Riverfront Times. Pflaum’s story is available online, and thank goodness, because this is extraordinary piece of writing and it serves as an illustration of just how corrupt the system has become. I’ll give just the basic outline here. You’ll want to go read the entire article, however, if you want to be prepared to pull out Exhibit A the next time you get into an argument with one of the many remaining Bush-loving purported free-marketers.

The story centers around Frederick vom Saal, a biology professor at the University of Missouri. He is one of the leading experts on bisphenol A, a chemical that is ubiquitous in the United States-more than six billion pounds are produced every year. The trouble is that bisphenol A contains a substance that acts as a synthetic hormone that has been suspected of being dangerous for human beings. Vom Saal’s research found that the synthetic estrogen that leeches out of bisphenol A can pass it right into human cells at doses 25,000 times lower than any toxicologist ever before studied, and it wreaks havoc with developing reproductive organs.”

Vom Saal and his colleague, Susan Nagel (a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and women’s health), found that bisphenol A is so potent that exposing a developing fetus to it could permanently alter crucial phases of development. Their experiments showed that tiny doses of bisphenol A could trigger breast cancer. Their experiments also showed that tiny doses enlarged the prostates of laboratory mice.

The problem is that humans are exposed to bisphenol A everyday. We are exposed to it in the form of food packaging, almost every water bottle, eyeglass lenses and the linings of aluminum food cans. Bisphenol A is a synthetic material that is commonly used to make plastic.

But this is where the story only begins to get interesting. Vom Saal and Nagel published their findings regarding the dangers of bisphenol A and they were about to publish a second article (announcing that exposure to bisphenol A lowered sperm counts in mice) when they received a visit from a scientist from Dow Chemical who offered to pay the University a huge amount of money to conduct a new bisphenol A “study” at the University. Here’s the kicker: the Dow Chemical scientist (who told the university scientists that he represented the Chemical Manufacturers Association) asked “Can we arrive at a mutually beneficial outcome where you withhold publishing this paper until authorized to do so by the Chemical Manufacturers Association?”

University scientists knew that they were being offered a bribe. To their credit, the university scientists quickly refused the offer. What then occurred was a huge chemical industry media campaign encouraging people to use plastic and telling them how good plastics were for them, including for their babies. In short, the chemical industry was trying to nullify the new findings that its products appeared to be dangerous. Vom Saal was disgusted, given that Nagel’s data showed that “babies are the most sensitive to bisphenol A.”

The story goes on and on and it gets more intriguing and more depressing. Suffice it to say that the chemical industry has enough money to create lots of bogus studies that suggest that there are scientific disputes where there aren’t any. Some industry studies were actually conducted, and they indicated that there was no problem with bisphenol A, whereas hundreds of legitimate studies replicated the findings of vom Saal and Nagel. 90% of government studies found a diverse low dose effects, but no industry funded study showed any ill effect. Subsequent independent review has shown the industry studies to be highly suspicious.

You might think, then, that the EPA would step in and protect us from such bogus research. Well, no, as Pflaum points out. Congress mandated that the EPA start enforcing the safe drinking water act by 2000 to protect consumers from endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as bisphenol A. Those tests have not yet begun.

What about the FDA? The news is equally discouraging. In March, 2008, a congressional inquiry found that when the FDA concluded that bisphenol A was safe, this conclusion was based only on two chemical industry studies (and that FDA ignored all of the legitimate studies). And get this: Democratic Representative John Dingell (Michigan) recently launched an investigation into a Washington, DC firm hired by the American chemical Council and found a 2003 memo to Dupont offering these services: “We will harness… the scientific and intellectual capital of our company with one goal in mind-creating the outcome of our client desires.”

The chemical industry has the power to conjure up fake studies along with disreputable scientific panels and to make sure that the outcomes are determined before the studies ever begin. Pflaum tells several detailed stories along this line. This well-financed corruption is what honest scientists are up against. They are also up against the temptation that occurs when huge amounts of money are offered to their universities in order to tempt the scientists to shut up or even reverse themselves.

Pflaum’s work describing the heroism of vom Saal and Susan Nagel should be on the front page of newspapers from coast to coast, but it’s not. I consider myself fortunate to have found this important story in the local alternative paper. Luckily, the Los Angeles Times and PBS FrontLine have also latched onto at least some aspects of this complex story.

Given that there is a lot of apparently unsafe plastic out there, what can we do to stay safe? Vom Saal warns that all plastics with bisphenol A start breaking down, especially when exposed to heat. This includes plastic baby bottles that are being dishwashed. His advice is to stay away from polycarbonate bottles and jugs and to stay away from plastic food packaging. He warns “put no plastic in any kind of heat, specifically in the microwave.” If you like beer, “drink it out of a glass bottle instead of out of a can.”

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Category: Consumerism, Environment, Food, Health, Medicine, Science, snake oil

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (13)

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  1. Hold on, "eyeglass lenses"? Do you mean, contact lenses?? EEEEKKK!!

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    In a watchdog series for the MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL, a trio of reporters focused on Bisphenol A, a chemical contained in many plastics that is also found in 93% of human beings. The problem at issue? Congress ordered the federal government in 1996 to begin testing and regulating certain chemicals suspected of causing cancer and a host of developmental problems. Eleven years later, not a single compound has been put to that test.

    http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/05232008/profil

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    And see this episode of Expose: Paul Thacker of the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology uncovers connections among big businesses, big money, and industry-funded front groups disguised as grassroots organizations that misrepresent scientific evidence in an attempt to influence public opinion and policy.

    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/expose/2006/11/science-fi

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Which plastic products contain bisphenol? Here is a description:

    Bisphenol A is used to make hard, glasslike plastic containers for food and drink, such as clear Nalgene bottles and toddler sip cups. It also can be used to line tin food and drink cans. Avoid using plastic food containers marked on the bottom with the recycling label No. 7; they may contain bisphenol A. Not all No. 7 products contain the chemical, but this is a reasonable guideline for a category of plastics to avoid, especially for children's use. Plastics with the recycling labels No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4 do not contain bisphenol A.

    http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/326907_plasti

  5. Dan Klarmann says:

    Recycling 7 is defined as "Other", i.e. not any of 1 thru 6, or a blend of more than one of those. That includes all plastics invented since the 1960's, plus a few that had already existed but were not in common usage.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Government toxicologists have reiterated safety concerns about a chemical used in baby bottles and food containers, just weeks after the Food and Drug Administration declared the substance safe.

    A report issued Wednesday said there is "some concern" that bisphenol A can cause developmental problems in the brain and hormonal systems of infants and children.

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26531316/

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    Elaine Shannon reports that "Yale researchers may have solved a fundamental medical mystery: how bisphenol A (BPA), a ubiquitous plastics component, changes genetic chemistry and impairs fertility."

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elaine-shannon/yale

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    It's increasingly clear that Bisphenol A (BPA) is ubiquitous.

    Read more at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/naomi-starkman/test

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    Now is a good time to let your representatives know that you don't want bisphenol A (BPA) in our food chain.
    http://action.ewg.org/p/dia/action/public/?action

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    BPA should be a big headline topic, but our big media outlets would rather discuss upcoming royal weddings. Yale Environment 360 took the time to focus on this important topic:

    In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Elizabeth Kolbert, vom Saal excoriated the U.S. chemical industry for attempting to quash research showing the dangers of BPA and for threatening him and other researchers. Vom Saal was equally critical of regulators from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other agencies, whom he says have relied on outdated studies, often funded by industry, to support claims that BPA is safe. Vom Saal adamantly believes that BPA should be removed from all products as soon as possible, as was done a decade ago in Japan.. . . Vom Saal maintains that the regulatory system has failed to protect U.S. consumers, adding, “It is a lie. It is a fraud. It is absolutely intolerable that this kind of thing is going on.”

    Vom Saal claims that BPA causes a shockingly long list of ailments:

    [I]t is related to increasing body weight. Also obesity, diabetes, heart disease, immune dysfunction including asthma and allergy, damage to every part of the reproductive system, including uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts in women, breast cancer. In men, low sperm counts, prostate cancer, abnormalities of the urethra that as they age, men can’t urinate normally — a major reason men go to the doctor. We are talking about billions of dollars of medical costs. And then from a neuro-biological point of view, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, some learning disabilities, social behavior disruption. It causes the brain of a young animal to look like a senile, aged adult, old person, and is part of impaired memory. This chemical is related to many of the epidemics in the world — diabetes, obesity, neural behavioral problems, reproductive abnormalities, decreases in fertility, early puberty in girls.

    http://e360.yale.edu/feature/a_warning_by_key_res

  11. Erich Vieth says:

    "Apparently consumers don't have as much control as they thought over avoiding products with bisphenol A (BPA), a hormone-disrupting chemical. What are two items that consumers cannot avoid? Dollar bills and receipts. And that's exactly where BPA is being found, according to a new study conducted by nonprofit groups Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and the Washington Toxics Coalition."

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/09/bpa-foun

  12. Dan Klarmann says:

    Huffington: Some money or receipts can expose you to up to 2.5 mcg (0.000025 grams) of this particular chamical, some of which may then get into your system!

    Horrors!

    But the new (2008), lower, “safe” everyday exposure rate is 50 mcg/kg/day, or about 4,000 mcg/day for a short guy like me. That is, I should only handle 1,600 of those bills each day to stay under the new safety limit. Assuming that nothing rubs off of me, only on. And assuming that I’m not already absorbing some traces of it from pretty much anything I touch.

  13. Erich Vieth says:

    Dan: Good math, but you’re missing the point. This potentially dangerous chemical (BPA) is totally unnecessary (several countries have entirely banned it). Why have any of it? Researchers can’t agree whether there is a “safe” amount.

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