In spite of ultimate conclusions or small sample populations, these studies and others like them bring out the worst and sometimes even the strangest types of “plastics panic.” Trasande , the NYU professor who studied phthalates, blood pressure and insulin, apparently offered his own “safe and simple steps” to avoid phthalates, including keeping plastic containers out of the microwave and dishwasher, discarding scratched plastic containers as their “protective coating” could be breached and expose users to phthalates and generally avoiding containers with 3, 6 or 7 resin ID codes. The “tips” were quickly picked up across the internet and on television, making appearances on NBC's Today show and the CBS Morning News.
That the vinyl and polystyrene “visual aids” on TV weren't actually items made with phthalates or anything someone would put in the microwave in the first place was hardly surprising to the American Chemistry Council's Steve Russell.
“As the plastics industry already knows, there is quite a bit of confusion among consumers about the resin identification codes, codes that were established to assist with and improve recycling so that plastics could be sorted more easily. That resin ID code has been frequently and widely misreported as being as a means to a way to identify what materials are in the plastics,” said Russell, ACC's vice president of plastics. “That's why ACC and [the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.] and [the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers] and other organizations are working to develop better guidance on recycling by the type of container rather than the resin ID code. And hopefully cut down on some of the misreporting.”
Phthalates frequently get presented to those outside the industry as something new, said Eileen Conneely, high phthalates panel manager at ACC, even though they have been in use, and safe, for 50 years.
“The average consumer doesn't know about phthalates,” she said.
All these journal articles pretty much have the same caveats from their authors, that further studies are needed, Conneely said, even though phthalates have been thoroughly tested and found safe for commercial and consumer use.
“Phthalates are used as a softener for PVC plastics. Generally you're not going to find them in any microwavable containers,” she said. Phthalates are more commonly found in building and construction materials — wire and cable, roofing membranes — than food-contact plastics.
ACC has a Web site, www.phthalates.org, to help better educate everyone, inside and outside the plastics industry, on how the plasticizers work, why they are used and their 50-year safety record. Conneely and Russell both acknowledge getting the right information out about phthalates and plastics in general is an uphill battle.
“Unfortunately, misreporting of the facts about plastics and their safety is something that happens a lot,” Russell said.