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Plastics, safety and the media

By: Don Loepp

March 14, 2014

Mother Jones tackled the topic of plastics and chemical safety last week with a 6,000+-word-story headlined “The Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Plastics ... And the Big Tobacco-style campaign to bury it.”

The story was extensively researched and footnoted, although I would quibble with calling the evidence “new” in the headline.

The story focuses on George Bittner’s research on the estrogenic activity of various plastics. I’m sure that many Mother Jones readers aren’t aware of his studies, but they’ve been around for a few years. The New York Times covered the topic in 2011, and National Public Radio in 2012.

In fact, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel blazed this trail back in 2008 with its “Chemical fallout” report, which I wrote about at the time.

All interesting reading, and essential information for plastics industry managers.

Why? Because Bittner claims that tests show that many types of common plastics — not just polycarbonate and epoxy, which use bisphenol A as a feedstock — have tested for estrogenic activity. If he’s right, that opens the door to lots more questions: Are the levels of EA high enough to be concerned about? Are plastics safe? Are plastics companies that market certain materials as BPA-free selling products that are actually safer?

Mother Jones points out that Bittner has a stake in all of those questions. He founded an Austin, Texas-based company called Plastipure Inc., which markets plastics that it claims are “significantly safer materials, free of all estrogenic activity.”

The story also covers the fact that Eastman Chemical Co. won a federal lawsuit last year against Plastipure. A jury heard Bittner’s claims, but ruled that Plastipure had made misleading statements about Tritan, the resin that Eastman markets as a BPA-free alternative.

Despite the outcome of the case, the Mother Jones story relies extensively on evidence related to the trial. Reporter Mariah Blake took a deep dive into the reports and testimony, and draws a number of conclusions that aren’t favorable to the plastics industry.

But you got that already, with the headline that compared the plastics industry to “Big Tobacco.” That’s not a comparison that anyone in the plastic industry likes to see.

So why is Mother Jones now covering the story about estrogenic activity of plastics, focusing on some studies that aren’t new — and building the case using evidence from a trial that ended seven months ago with a victory by the “Big Chemical” industry?

Blake sums it up here, in a section of the story that explains that Eastman has “launched a PR blitz” assuring the public of Tritan’s safety:

“Eastman’s offensive is just the latest in a wide-ranging industry campaign to cast doubt on the potential dangers of plastics in food containers, packaging, and toys — a campaign that closely resembles the methods Big Tobacco used to stifle scientific evidence about the dangers of smoking.”

These sorts of stories tend to generate a lot of me-too coverage from other news site and blogs. Within a few days of Mother Jones posting its story, there were dozens of stories online with headlines like “Are BPA-Free Plastics Any Safer?” and “Some BPA-free plastic is actually worse for you than normal plastic.”

Of course most of those other reports didn’t include any of the necessary context: That this story wasn’t generated by a new study, that both sides (Bittner and Eastman) have a financial stake in the debate, and that a jury — after hearing most of both sides’ case a year ago — ruled against Bittner.

So this is a reminder that despite winning a battle in the war over plastics and chemical safety, the plastics industry shouldn’t expect the war to be over. This is a debate that has raged for decades, and it’s not going to end anytime soon.

Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.