WASHINGTON — One of the two largest makers of IV products in the United States, Baxter International Inc., announced April 6 that it wants to develop alternatives to PVC.
But don't expect the process to move much quicker than a slow drip of saline.
Baxter, responding to pressure from shareholders concerned about phthalates leaching from IV bags and dioxin emissions from PVC disposal, said it would provide the shareholders with a timetable and benchmarks for alternatives, and continue to develop them during the next decade.
The shareholders are the pension funds of the largest health-care union in North America, the Service Employees International Union, plus two religious organizations: the Employees of the Sisters of Mercy Regional Community Center in Detroit and the Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati.
Environmental organizations hailed the move, with Greenpeace saying the health-care company is ``joining the ranks of forward-thinking companies who recognize their is no future in PVC.''
But the health-care giant stressed it thinks PVC is safe and does not agree with the fundamental assertion of the shareholders — that phthalates leaching from PVC are dangerous. Baxter said it is not accelerating research on alternatives, work it was already doing because some drugs cannot be packaged in PVC.
``We are profoundly disappointed in the misrepresentations that have been made in recent days concerning Baxter's materials-development efforts and its use of polyvinyl chloride products,'' the company said. ``The recent statements made by activists groups are inaccurate.''
Baxter's move, however, is not vindication for the vinyl industry. The firm said it is shying away from PVC.
``You are looking at a very gradual shift, product by product, over a very long period of time, i.e., a decade or more,'' said Baxter spokeswoman Deborah Spak. While the company disagrees with the shareholders that PVC is a problem, she said, ``we are going to end up getting to the same point they want people to get to, but for a different set of reasons.''
Spak declined to talk about the timetables, but a representative of the shareholders said they will meet with Baxter in September and will want to see specific information about when alternatives will be available ``so that it wouldn't be from here to eternity.''
``We've gained a commitment that they will in fact phase out PVC,'' said Sister Regina Murphy, an official with the Interfaith Council on Corporate Responsibility. ``If you were Baxter or one of the medical-supply companies, you could not indicate the slightest possible danger with the product.''
The New York-based council advises religious groups on investment policy, and is involved in the Baxter talks. Its members have about $90 billion in investments.
The shareholders also made similar requests of Abbott Laboratories, the other large U.S. maker of PVC IV products, but Abbott rejected the request. Abbott shareholders will consider a PVC-phaseout resolution at their April 23 board meeting.
``Even though we believe the [PVC] products are safe, the scientific debate has heightened interest from some customers and shareholders,'' said Rhonda Luniak, spokeswoman for North Chicago, Ill.-based Abbott.
The Canadian government agency Health Canada has said it considers PVC safe. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is reviewing it.
The three shareholder groups also have presented resolutions to hospital groups Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. and Universal Health Services Inc., Murphy said. Those companies could not be reached for comment, but Murphy said the hospitals fought attempts to get the issue before their shareholders in May.
The agreement with Baxter requires the firm to ask the Vinyl Institute and the Chlorine Chemistry Council not to use Baxter products in its advertising campaigns.
Playing off the pressure religious groups are applying to Baxter, a CCC statement was replete with religious imagery, calling Greenpeace ``the devil'' and an allied group, Health Care Without Harm, its ``acolyte.''
The CCC statement also touted an eight-year contract that Abbott signed to supply products, including PVC devices, to a Catholic organization, Consorta Inc. That $500 million deal supplies products to 296 hospitals, including half the Catholic facilities in the United States.
But the CCC statement does not mention that the Consorta contract raises concerns about PVC and requires Abbott to provide yearly updates on its efforts to phase out PVC. That language was requested by Consorta, Abbott said.