People who think the plastics industry's image suffers from environmental problems now should pay attention to the smoldering debate around endocrine disrupters. They could make executives long for the days of the garbage barge.
That's because those old arguments focused on public policy abstractions such as whether enough plastic is recycled, while the new concerns over endocrine disrupters have the potential for a much more personal impact — our health.
Endocrine disrupters are synthetic chemicals that mimic estrogen or other natural endocrine chemicals in animals and people and, it's feared, can play havoc with reproductive systems and fetal development.
By no means are plastics the only products that could be part of the next generation of endocrine disrupters, but plastics are taking a prominent role in the debate. Theo Colburn, whose 1996 book Our Stolen Future jump-started the debate, mentioned plastics repeatedly in a recent talk with congressional staffers, industry representatives and reporters in Washington. (Her book also includes a foreword written by Vice President Al Gore.)
So what does the evidence suggest?
Basically, that we need more evidence. Some scientists point to several studies linking bisphenol A, the building block of polycarbonate, to endocrine disruption in animals at levels far below earlier research, and say more evidence is forthcoming. Other research says the plastics additive nonylphenol also could be a disrupter.
Industry officials say more research is needed and note that studies implicating BPA have not been duplicated. And they note that some studies have not found problems with BPA, nonylphenols or phthalates suspected of endocrine effects. An Environmental Protection Agency official working closely with endocrine disrupters said researchers need to be ``fairly cautious'' about results because of problems with some earlier work.
The topic will get more attention. The Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. plans to finish more definitive research later this year, although scientists on the other side already are criticizing SPI's methodology. The EPA must develop screening programs by August, following a broad congressional mandate, and begin years of testing.
Industry should not ignore the issue and should let research take its course. If the result shows problems, then other additives will have to be found or certain plastics may have to be curtailed from some uses. But the public and regulators also should avoid drawing too many conclusions from too little information, and should be prepared to give plastics a clean bill of health, if warranted.