(June 24, 2005) — We may be living in an Information Age, but sometimes it seems more like a Misinformation Age.
Every week, I see news reports that contain incomplete, inaccurate or even damaging information about plastics.
Often the reports are based on facts — I'm familiar enough with all the relevant scientific studies that I can recognize which ones are being cited, even when the authors don't include that level of detail.
But frequently the issues are boiled down to a point where I know that typical readers who aren't familiar with the issues are just going to come away with a generally negative impression of plastics.
Here are just a few headlines from the past few weeks:
c “Experts say some plastics should not be used near food,” from a New York television report.
c “Not all PVC merits bad plastic rap,” from a Florida newspaper's wire report on — believe it or not — Internet rumors about the safety of vinyl.
c “Why plastics can make you sick,” from a news report on a health and dieting Web site.
Now, a lot of newspapers and magazines do a good and fair job of reporting on environmental issues. But the problem comes when issues are boiled down too far. For example, look at that TV report. The headline saying that plastics should not be used around food sounds pretty alarming — after all, plastics have a long track record of safety in food packaging and food service.
The only quoted expert, it turned out, was an editor for Organic Style magazine, who was touting a report in her June issue headlined “Safer food storage.” But there are a few problems with the story:
c One recommendation, “Don't use any plastic, including plastic wrap, Tupperware and Styrofoam” in the microwave, is too simplistic. Many plastic wraps and containers have been tested for use in the microwave. Is it really safer to use ceramic? Or, in a household with children using the microwave, glass?
c A glossary of plastics really slams PVC, mentioning risks of birth defects and cancer, and saying it is “generally not safe; not recycled.” Polystyrene and polycarbonate also get some critical comments.
A relatively recent trend is for the plastics industry to fight back against misinformation.
If you want information about the safety of plastics in microwaves, for example, check out www.plasticsmythbuster.org, a Web site developed by the American Plastics Council. The Vinyl Institute's site, www.vinylinfo.org, also deals with common misinformation.
If you're trying to convince someone who is skeptical of industry-sponsored information, here are a few more good sources for plastics-related science:
c www.stats.org, which is affiliated with the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. This site monitors the media to expose the abuse of science and statistics.
c www.acsh.org and www.healthfactsandfears.com are maintained by the American Council on Science and Health. Founded by scientists, the group aims “to add reason and balance to debates about public health issues and bring common-sense views to the public.”
c Finally, www.snopes.com is a fun site for debunking urban legends. It's searchable and has a fair number of science-related items.
Loepp is managing editor of Plastics News.