NEW ORLEANS - Baxter International Inc., a leading supplier of medical products, wants to set the record straight regarding its use of flexible PVC.
The Deerfield, Ill.-based firm was thrust into the spotlight in April when, after shareholders expressed concern about alleged health problems resulting from PVC use, Baxter officials said the company would continue its effort to find alternatives to vinyl products.
In a June 24 speech at Flexpo 99 in New Orleans, Baxter technical director K.Z. Hong said the company had been reviewing alternate materials for several years.
``We're constantly searching for better materials,'' Hong said. ``People were asking us why we were resisting change, and that's totally contrary to the truth.''
Hong said Baxter has replaced rigid and semirigid PVC in applications such as blister packaging and drip chambers as superior replacement materials were developed. Flexible PVC also has been replaced in applications including bags for pre-mix drugs and some blood products such as platelets.
But in most flexible PVC applications, competing materials haven't been able to match the variety of attributes PVC can offer, he said.
Materials aiming for PVC's medical uses include thermoplastic elastomers and metallocene or single-site-enhanced grades of polyethylene and polypropylene, as well as numerous blends, alloys and multilayer laminates made from those materials.
Most of the challengers can match flexible PVC in areas such as clarity, flexibility and softness, according to Hong. But only a few can equal its elastic recovery, kink resistance and high surface gloss. And none can top flexible PVC's ability to be bonded with solvents and adhesives.
Hong laid out those criteria in a three-tiered, pyramid-shaped diagram, with basic attributes on the bottom and difficult ones on top. By volume, 80 percent of medical PVC applications require materials that can reach the third level.
Hong also repeated Baxter's belief that PVC is not harmful in medical uses. Greenpeace and other activist groups have claimed that phthalates used in plasticizers can leach out of PVC blood bags and intravenous tubing and enter the bloodstream.
Most potential replacement materials are significantly more expensive than PVC. But Hong said the cost factor has been exaggerated in some accounts.
``There's been a misleading impression that we've overemphasized the cost, and that makes Greenpeace think we're only thinking of dollar signs,'' Hong said.
``That's totally untrue. The first item on our list of material-selection criteria is the safety of the end users. The material must first do no harm to patients.''
Hong added that PVC has more than 40 years of safe and effective clinical use working in its favor. That history adds up to at least 5 billion patient days of acute exposure to PVC products and at least 1 billion patient days of chronic exposure.
``The PVC experience has been very unique,'' Hong said. ``The material is unchallengeable today, but maybe tomorrow that will change.''
Baxter has done a good job of handling the PVC issue so far, according to Robert Brookman, vice president of Teknor Apex, a PVC compounder headquartered in Pawtucket, R.I.
``Initially, I was shocked at what [Baxter] said, when it sounded like they were actively seeking to replace PVC,'' Brookman said. ``But when the company followed up and straightened things out, I felt more comfortable with it.''
Brookman added that PVC's history of widespread medical use, combined with research such as former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop's recent study, are proof of the material's safety.
``This argument doesn't have a leg to stand on,'' Brookman said. ``There's no sound data that shows PVC is medically harmful.''
As part of Baxter's agreement with its shareholders, the company has asked the Vinyl Institute, the Chlorine Chemistry Council and the American Plastics Council not to use Baxter products in its advertisements.
CCC senior adviser Fred Krause said CCC and VI use a Baxter IV bag in a joint print and television ad campaign launched in late 1998, but the product is not identified as such and the Baxter logo is not used.
The print ads still are being run, said Krause, who added he was unaware of the Baxter policy when the ads were created.
Baxter spokeswoman Deborah Spak said the product placement agreement has been included in Baxter contracts for several years and was not implemented because of shareholders' recent concerns.