Poisonous Propaganda: Global Echoes of an Anti-Vinyl Agenda

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Led by Greenpeace, environmental and “consumer” activist groups have implemented a worldwide campaign to ban polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, a plastic that contains chemicals collectively referred to as phthalates.  Phthalates are used to soften these plastics, giving PVC—more commonly known as vinyl—qualities which make it useful not only for such things as children’s toys, but also for critically important medical devices.  In particular, vinyl is used to make medical tubing, blood bags, IV bags, and gloves.  In fact, 25 percent of all medical products are made with vinyl.

These groups have decided that, despite any evidence to the contrary, certain plastic products might be dangerous to public health.  Hence, they contend, the public should no longer have the right to use these materials—no matter how beneficial the products may be and regardless of the costs or risks associated with alternatives.

The attack on vinyl medical products is nothing new for Greenpeace and its cohorts.  The group has long maintained that incineration of vinyl (particularly in medical waste incinerators) releases dioxin into the environment.  Although dioxin has never been shown to cause any chronic human health impacts other than the skin problem chloroacne, even at relatively high exposure levels, elimination of dioxin is part of Greenpeace’s 20-year campaign to eliminate “the use, export, and import, of all organochlorines, elemental chlorine, and chlorinated oxidizing agents.”  In this campaign, Greenpeace chooses to ignore the benefits of chlorine.  For example, chlorine is necessary to maintain a safe drinking water supply and it is used in nearly 85 percent of all pharmaceuticals produced worldwide.  Greenpeace also ignores studies showing dioxin levels emitted into the environment have been decreasing for more than 25 years, while at the same time vinyl production has nearly tripled.

Starting mostly in Europe, Greenpeace focused on the supposed risks to children that might ingest phthalates when they mouth vinyl toys, a smart move strategically.  Employing a series of press stunts, pseudo-scientific studies, and political lobbying, Greenpeace has managed to get nations around the world to ban vinyl toys in the name of saving babies.  In addition, they have pressured industry itself into voluntarily withdrawing their products from the marketplace.

Building on these successes, Greenpeace has worked in the United States as part of a coalition called Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) to press hospitals and medical product manufacturers to phase out PVC products.  As a result, medical-device manufacturers have come under pressure from shareholders to ban their very own life-saving products.  Medical associations have voted on, and some have passed, resolutions to phase out PVC products.  Local and state governments also have considered and passed resolutions calling on hospitals to phase out vinyl medical products.  As this debate proceeds, Greenpeace continues to make inroads.

The stakes associated with the elimination of vinyl medical products are high.  Banning these products would require hospitals to find alternatives—alternatives that may not only prove inferior to vinyl, but could pose new risks.  While Greenpeace and HCWH claim that adequate alternatives exist, even US Catholic Healthcare West, a member of HCWH, noted that they will not phase out vinyl products until suitable alternatives are available.  And a HCWH-commissioned study reported, “To our knowledge, no commercially available substitutes have been identified for PVC to date in the storage of red blood cells.”  With a yearly collection of 12 million units of blood in the United States and an impending blood shortage, elimination of vinyl bags is clearly a bad idea.

Also of great concern are the risks associated with the alternatives.  As a spokesman for the US Food and Drug Administration recently noted, “We would need to see substantial amounts 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 has noted, “DEHP [a common phthalate] 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.”

Greenpeace’s successes are particularly disturbing given that it lacks any reasonable scientific basis for its claims.  The science on phthalates is quite clear: These substances cause liver and testicular effects in some lab animals (mice and rats) when fed large doses, yet they don’t cause problems for other lab animals (monkeys).  More importantly, after nearly 50 years of use and study, scientists have not found phthalates to cause any adverse effects to humans—not even to kidney dialysis patients who receive maximum exposure.  Some key findings are worth highlighting:

Ø In February 2000, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer announced that it was downgrading DEHP from “possibly carcinogenic to humans” to “not classifiable as to carcinogenicity to humans.”  The Agency found that DEHP cancer effects on rats and mice are “not relevant to humans.”

Ø A 1996 risk assessment of DEHP, which reviewed about 500 studies, concluded that the threat of human liver cancer is extremely unlikely under any anticipated exposure dose.

Ø The US Food and Drug Administration has approved vinyl medical products as safe, and officials have expressed concerns that alternatives may prove less safe.

Ø Although an old Environmental Protection Agency ruling held that phthalates are a “probable human carcinogen,” more recent work indicates a need to review this claim.  Indeed, a former head of the EPA’s Science and Policy staff stated in the Journal of Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, “No evidence exists to suggest that [peroxisome proliferators] are carcinogenic in the human liver.”

Ø US Consumer Product Safety Commission released the latest results of a study on DINP (the phthalate used in toys), concluding that “few, if any, children are at risk of liver or other organ toxicity from mouthing teethers, rattles, and other PVC toys that contain DINP.”

Ø To address the issue, the American Council on Science and Health convened a Blue Ribbon Commission headed by former US Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, with the participation of 16 other top scientists.  It found that the use of phthalates “in medical devices is not harmful to even highly exposed individuals,” and use “in toys is not harmful for children in normal use of these toys.”

Ø Canada’s federal health department, Health Canada, has classified DEHP as “unlikely to be carcinogenic to humans.”

Ø The European Commission’s own official decision states that DEHP “shall not be classified or labeled as a carcinogenic or an irritant substance.”

Ø The WHO recently concluded that “there is not sufficient evidence to suggest that DEHP is a potential human carcinogen.”

Perhaps recognizing the weakness of the cancer claims, Greenpeace and its allies have now decided to claim that phthalates are endocrine disrupters—substances that supposedly affect our hormone levels, causing infertility and other health problems.  Yet phthalate exposure levels are insignificant and safe.  In fact, the public safely consumes naturally occurring phyto-estrogens in plants and vegetables such as soya, hops, peas, beans, sprouts, and celery, a fact that environmental campaigners overlook.

It is unfortunate that lawmakers and industry will act in the absence of scientific justification when the stakes are so high.  Greenpeace has called on lawmakers to act based on the precautionary principle, which calls for action to eliminate all potential risks to be on the “safe side.”  Yet, this application of the principle ignores the new risks it creates as well as the sacrifices society makes as it eliminates valuable products—perhaps even forcing patients to suffer or die during the transition.  And often forgotten is the fact that it forces us to devote resources toward developing alternatives—resources that would otherwise be used for development of products that would improve quality of life.  In this case, it means that medical firms will spend less on the development of other medical innovations that could reduce human suffering and save lives.