(April 16, 2004) — Growing evidence that chemicals related to plastics are finding their way into humans and animals is an issue that should concern the plastics industry.
In Europe, awareness is growing about chemicals accumulating in animals and humans. It's an old issue — environmentalists warned about bioaccumulation of DDT and other chemicals a half century ago — but now with some new twists.
For one, they're personalizing the issue in a new way. Activists are taking samples of their own blood and having them tested for toxic chemicals. Then they report the findings to the media. The message to readers: If these people have toxins in their blood, then so do you. The next step will probably be lawsuits where activists sue manufacturers of certain chemicals for trespassing into their bodies.
The World Wildlife Fund, which closely watches the issue of endocrine disrupters in plastics additives, weighed in on a related topic with a Jan. 29 report, “Causes for Concern: Chemicals and Wildlife.” The report specifically highlights chemicals with close ties to plastics: perfluorinated compounds (used in nonstick coatings such as Teflon), phthalates, phenolic compounds and brominated flame retardants. WWF claims the “body burden” of chemicals is getting worse, citing a study that found that in the 1960s, researchers found five organochlorine compounds and mercury in marine mammals, while today more than 265 organic pollutants and 50 inorganic chemicals have been found in these species.
WWF is pushing for stronger laws on chemical safety in the European Union, including strengthening of a proposal called Reach (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals), which would require manufacturers and importers to provide safety information on about 30,000 industrial chemicals.
This issue probably will come down to where regulators and legislators side on the so-called precautionary principle — the idea that if evidence suggests danger, then we should reduce our exposure to a chemical even if we lack indisputable scientific proof.
Traditionally, the chemical industry would prefer to weigh the potential danger with the cost of such a move.
This is one of those issues where plastics processors' interests may diverge from the interests of their suppliers. On one hand, you can argue that the plastics industry is one giant entity, and anything that affects suppliers is bound to trickle down and have an impact on processors. That's how the plastics industry typically responds to challenges, an attitude that says “we're all in the same boat.”
But there's a problem: Every time the mainstream media reports on dangers of these chemicals, it (necessarily) puts them in a context that readers can understand, which frequently means connecting them to plastic products. So processors may be best served by removing as many of those negatives as possible, before they snowball into major issues.