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Published in the Washington Times
August 10, 2000
In a recent letter to the Atlanta Constitution, shooting victim Meredith Winitt thanks the 115 blood donors whose generosity saved her life and laments what would have happened without that blood supply. "It frightens me to think of the blood shortage in Georgia during the weeks prior to the shooting," she noted. "The Red Cross did not even have 115 units on hand. If Mark Barton had snapped a few days earlier, there is no way I would have survived." Blood shortages do indeed pose a life-and-death threat for many. As recent headlines attest, summer always poses a great supply challenge as donors go on vacation. But our blood supply may soon face another, perhaps even more serious and long-term challenge. Radical activist groups seek to ban the only effective containers for storing red blood cells. Euphemistically called "Health Care Without Harm" (HCWH), this coalition claims vinyl blood bags release chemicals into the blood that can harm recipients. Despite more than 40 years of safe and effective use and volumes of scientific research revealing safety, HCWH calls on companies to phase out vinyl medical products. The Competitive Enterprise Institute documents the dangers of HCWH's campaign in a recently released study called Poisonous Propaganda  by Bill Durodie. How an organization called Health Care Without Harm can pursue this campaign is beyond understanding. Mr. Durodie points out that vinyl blood bags store 12 million units of blood a year in the United States. Vinyl is the preferred container because it stores red blood cells twice as long as the next best alternative. Storing blood for longer terms enables groups like the Red Cross to collect when donors are available and store up a supply to help ward off shortages or at least make them less severe. Accordingly, one of the studies that HCWH itself commissioned notes: "To our knowledge, no commercially available substitutes have been identified for PVC polyvinyl chlorine, the technical name for this vinyl to date in the storage of red blood cells." Given these realities, how can HCWH morally justify its position? We know blood shortages can kill. What do we know about the alleged risks HCWH suggests exist? Fifty years of use and study of vinyl products comes down on the side of safety. Before approving them for use, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducted extensive testing on vinyl medical products. In reply to the HCWH campaign, Dr. Bruce Burlington, then-director of the FDA's center for devices and radiological health, commented, "We believe that IV bags, blood administration sets and the other uses of PVC, including dialysis tubing, are safe." Other medical and scientific organizations have attested to the safety of vinyl. The World Health Organization (WHO) downgraded it in February 2000 from "possibly carcinogenic to humans" to "not classifiable as to carcinogenicity to humans" - putting it in a category with talc, rubbing alcohol, and tea. A 1996 risk assessment of vinyl reviewed about 500 studies and concluded the threat of human liver cancer (which is a key HCWH alleged danger) is extremely unlikely under any anticipated exposure dose. While intensive study has not found any significant risks associated with vinyl, alternatives have undergone much less scrutiny, and some clearly pose greater risks (such as the obvious breakage hazards of glass). As a spokesman for the FDA recently noted, "We would need to see a substantial amount of testing to make sure we weren't moving from a product with good characteristics to one that we didn't know much about." Likewise, the American Council on Science and Health notes in its report on the topic, that vinyl "imparts a variety of important physical characteristics that are critical to the function of medical devices and eliminating DEHP in these products could cause harm to some individuals." Unfortunately, blood supply is not the only medical good in jeopardy. Vinyl is used to make 25 percent of all plastic medical products, such as tubing, gloves, syringes, etc. Banning vinyl will raise the cost of medical supplies, contributing to spiraling medical costs and placing medicine even further out of the reach of the world's poorest. Consider what needless cost increases mean to people in Africa, where many already struggle to pay for vinyl medical products used for AIDS or malaria treatments. A more appropriate name for the leaders of this campaign would be "Health Care With Harm." Indeed, they threaten to take away the very source of life for many injured and ill - a lasting blood supply. Angela Logomasini is director of risk and domestic environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market public policy organization.