Each year, the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) Web site publishes its "Dubious Data" awards, for activists and journalists who abuse science and statistics. STATS is affiliated with the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. This year, some plastics-related issues are featured. Here are a few highlights:
If it sounds suspicious, ban it In June, San Francisco's mayor, Gavin Newsom, decided to ban plastic water bottles, in part because of concerns about recycling, which was reasonable enough, and in part because they contained “toxic” vinyl softeners known as phthalates, which was, at least metaphorically, garbage. The mayor – and the journalists who dutifully conveyed his fears to the public – seemed oblivious to the fact that plastic bottles do not contain phthalates; they are, instead, made with a polyester called polyethylene terephthalate, which is something quite different even though it seems to sound similar. But that's chemistry for you. Poylethylene terephthalate, or PET for short, is not considered a health hazard by any regulatory agency in the world. Perhaps a refresher course in puberty? Phthalatophobia, a subcategory of chemophobia (the fear of chemicals), led the media to make all sorts of remarkable claims in 2007, none more ballsy, perhaps, than Time magazine's decision to advance puberty beyond the bounds of biological plausibility with the claim, in September, that inhaling phthalates from air fresheners could decrease sperm levels in infants. Perhaps, Time was demonstrating that the mere act of reporting on toxic chemicals can cause mental derangement, as a) infants don't produce sperm and b), the author of the study on phthalates in air fresheners, Dr. Gina Solomon of the Natural Resources Defense Council, admitted that had no “clear cut evidence here for health effects.” This comment was something of a let down from urgent wording of the NRDC press release, which claimed that phthalates were “particularly dangerous for young children and unborn babies.”There are more, including the flurry of news stories that Greenpeace generated when it ranked Apple Computer at the bottom of its list of envronmentally friendly computer companies. Check out the link for that and more, as well as links to the STATS "Dubious Data" awards from 2005 and 2006. For more Web sites that offer plastics-related science, check out the American Council on Science and Health's HealthfactsandFears.com Web site, the American Chemistry Council's plastics mythbuster site, or the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s mythbuster site. If you have your own favorite, feel free to post it in the comments section.