[Pharmwaste] Pervasive Plastics: Why the U.S. Needs New and Tighter Controls

DeBiasi,Deborah Deborah.DeBiasi at deq.virginia.gov
Fri Nov 13 10:06:31 EST 2009



Pervasive Plastics: Why the U.S. Needs New and Tighter Controls

Long a ubiquitous part of modern life, plastics are now in everything
from diapers to water bottles to cell phones. But given the proven
health threats of some plastics - as well as the enormous environmental
costs - the time has come for the U.S. to pass a comprehensive plastics
control law.
by john wargo

Since 1950, plastics have quickly and quietly entered the lives and
bodies of most people and ecosystems on the planet. In the United States
alone, more than 100 billion pounds of resins are formed each year into
food and beverage packaging, electronics, building products,
furnishings, vehicles, toys, and medical devices. In 2007, the average
American purchased more than 220 pounds of plastic, creating nearly $400
billion in sales.

It is now impossible to avoid exposure to plastics. They surround and
pervade our homes, bodies, foods, and water supplies, from the plastic
diapers and polyester pajamas worn by our children to the cars we drive
and the frying pans in which we cook our food.

The ubiquitous nature of plastics is a significant factor in an
unexpected side effect of 20th century prosperity - a change in the
chemistry of the human body. Today, most individuals carry in their
bodies a mixture of metals, pesticides, solvents, fire retardants,
waterproofing agents, and by-products of fuel combustion, according to
studies of human tissues conducted across the U.S. by the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention. Children often carry higher
concentrations than adults, with the amounts also varying according to
gender and ethnicity. Many of these substances are recognized by the
governments of the United States and the European Union to be
carcinogens, neurotoxins, reproductive and developmental toxins, or
endocrine disruptors that mimic or block human hormones.

Significantly, these chemicals were once thought to be safe at doses now
known to be hazardous; as with other substances, the perception of
danger grew as governments tested chemicals more thoroughly. Such is the
case with Bisphenol-A (BPA), the primary component of hard and clear
polycarbonate plastics, which people are exposed to daily through water
bottles, baby bottles, and the linings of canned foods.

Given the proven health threat posed by some plastics, the scattershot
and weak regulation of the plastics industry, and the enormous
environmental costs of plastics - the plastics industry accounts for 5
percent of the nation's consumption of petroleum and natural gas, and
more than 1 trillion pounds of plastic wastes now sit in U.S. garbage
dumps - the time has come to pass a comprehensive national plastics
control law.

One might assume the United States already has such a law. Indeed,
Congress adopted the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1976
intending to manage chemicals such as those polymers used to form
plastics. Yet TSCA was and is fundamentally flawed for several reasons
thatNearly all chemicals in commerce have been poorly tested to
determine their effects
on human health. have long been obvious. Nearly 80,000 chemicals are now
traded in global markets, and Congress exempted nearly 60,000 of them
from TSCA testing requirements. Among 20,000 new compounds introduced
since the law's passage, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
has issued permits for all except five, but has required intensive
reviews for only 200. This means that nearly all chemicals in commerce
have been poorly tested to determine their environmental behavior or
effects on human health. The statute's ineffectiveness has been
recognized for decades, yet Congress, the EPA, and manufacturers all
share blame for the failure to do anything about it.

In contrast, the European Union in 2007 adopted a new directive known as
"REACH" that requires the testing of both older and newly introduced
chemicals. Importantly the new regulations create a burden on
manufacturers to prove safety; under TSCA the burden rests on EPA to
prove danger, and the agency has never taken up the challenge. Unless
the U.S. chooses to adopt similar restrictions, U.S. chemical
manufacturers will face barriers to their untested exports intended for
European markets. Thus the chemical industry itself recognizes the need
to harmonize U.S. and EU chemical safety law.

The most promising proposal for reform in the U.S. is the "Kid-Safe
Chemical Act," a bill first introduced in 2008 that would require
industry to show that chemicals are safe for children before they are
added to consumer products. Such a law is needed because there is little
doubt that the growing burden of synthetic chemicals has been
accompanied by an increase in the prevalence of many illnesses during
the past half-century. These include respiratory diseases (such as
childhood asthma), neurological impairments, declining sperm counts,
fertility failure, immune dysfunction, breast and prostate cancers, and
developmental disorders among the young. Some of these illnesses are now
known to be caused or exacerbated by exposure to commercial chemicals
and pollutants.

Few people realize how pervasive plastics have become. Most homes
constructed since 1985 are wrapped in plastic film such as Tyvek, and
many exterior shells are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) siding. Some
modern buildings receive water and transport wastes via PVC pipes.
Wooden floors are coated with polyurethane finishes and polyvinyl
chloride tiles.

Foods and beverages are normally packaged in plastic, including milk
bottles made from high-density polyethylene. Most families have at least
one "non-stick" pan, often made from Teflon, a soft polymer that can
scratch and hitchhike on foods to the dinner table. Between 1997 and
2005, annual sales of small bottles of water - those holding less than
one liter - increased from 4 billion to nearly 30 billion bottles.

The billions of video games, computers, MP3 players, cameras, and
cellIngredients of plastics need not be labeled, and most manufacturers
are unwilling to disclose them or their sources. phones purchased each
year in the United States use a wide variety of plastic resins. And the
almost 7.5 million new vehicles sold in the United States each year
contain 2.5 billion pounds of plastic components, which have little hope
of being recycled, especially if made from polyvinyl chloride or

The chemical contents of plastics have always been a mystery to
consumers. Under federal law, ingredients need not be labeled, and most
manufacturers are unwilling or unable to disclose these contents or
their sources. Indeed, often the only clue consumers have to the
chemical identity of the plastics they use is the voluntary resin code
designed to identify products that should and should not be recycled -
but it offers little usable information.

The true costs of plastics - including the energy required to
manufacture them, the environmental contamination caused by their
disposal, their health impacts, and the recycling and eventual disposal
costs - are not reflected in product prices. The American Plastics
Council now estimates that only about 5 percent of all plastics
manufactured are recycled; 95 billion pounds are discarded on average
yearly. Adding to the environmental toll, most plastic is produced from
natural gas and petroleum products, exacerbating global warming.

Plastics and Human Health

The controversy over BPA - the primary component of hard and clear
plastics - and its potential role in human hormone disruption provides
the most recent example of the need for a national plastics control law.

Normal growth and development among fetuses, infants, children, and
adolescents is regulated in the body by a diverse set of hormones that
promote or inhibit cell division. More than a thousand chemicals are now
suspected of affecting normal human hormonal activity. These include
many pharmaceuticals, pesticides, plasticizers, solvents, metals, and
flame retardants.

Scientists' growing interest in hormone disruption coincided with a
consensus within the National Academy of Sciences that children are
often at greater risk of health effects than adults because of their
rapidly growing but immature organ systems, hormone pathways, and
metabolic systems. And many forms of human illness associated with
abnormal hormonal activity have become more commonplace during the past
several decades, including infertility, breast and prostate cancer, and
various neurological problems.

BPA illustrates well the endocrine disruption problem. Each year several
billion pounds of BPA are produced in the United States. The Centers
forDavid McNew/Getty ImagesPlastic water bottles made with the carbonate
plastic Bisphenol-A (BPA) hang on display at a California outdoor supply
store.Disease Control and Prevention has found, in results consistent
with those found in other countries, that 95 percent of human urine
samples tested have measurable BPA levels. BPA has also been detected in
human serum, breast milk, and maternal and fetal plasma. BPA travels
easily across the placenta, and levels in many pregnant women and their
fetuses were similar to those found in animal studies to be toxic to the
reproductive organs of the animals' male and female offspring.

Government scientists believe that the primary source of human BPA
exposure is foods, especially those that are canned, as BPA-based epoxy
resins can migrate from the resins into the foods. In 1997, the FDA
found that BPA migrated from polycarbonate water containers - such as
the five-gallon water jugs found in offices - into water at room
temperature and that concentrations increased over time. Another study
reported that boiling water in polycarbonate bottles increased the rate
of migration by up to 55-fold, suggesting that it would be wise to avoid
filling polycarbonate baby bottles with boiling water to make infant
formula from powders.

Scientists have reported BPA detected in nonstick-coated cookware, PVC
stretch film used for food packaging, recycled paperboard food boxes,
and clothing treated with fire retardants.

Since 1995 numerous scientists have reported that BPA caused health
effects in animals that were similar to diseases becoming more prevalent
in humans, abnormal penile or urethra development in males, obesity and
type 2 diabetes, and immune system disorders. BPA can bind with estrogen
receptors in cell membranes following part-per-trillion doses -
exposures nearly 1,000 times lower than the EPA's recommended acceptable

In 2007, the National Institutes of Health convened a panel of 38
scientists to review the state of research on BPA-induced health
effects. The panel, selected for its independence from the plastics
industry, issued a strong warning about the chemical's hazards:

"There is chronic, low level exposure of virtually everyone in developed
countries to BPA... The wide range of adverse effects of low doses of
BPA in laboratory animals exposed both during development and in
adulthood is a great cause for concern with regard to the potential for
similar adverse effects in humans."

The American Chemistry Council, which advocates for the plastics
industry, has criticized most scientific research that has reported an
Competing narratives have delayed government action to protect the
health of citizens. association between BPA and adverse health effects.
The council's complaints have included claims that sample sizes are too
small, that animals are poor models for understanding hazards to humans,
that doses administered in animal studies are normally far higher than
those experienced by humans, that the mechanism of chemical action is
poorly understood, and that health effects among those exposed are not
necessarily "adverse."

Research on plastics, however, now comprises a large and robust
literature reporting adverse health effects in laboratory animals and
wildlife at even low doses. Claims of associations between BPA and
hormonal activity in humans are strengthened by consensus that everyone
is routinely exposed and by the rising incidence of many human diseases
similar to those induced in animals dosed with the chemical. Two
competing narratives - one forwarded by independent scientists and the
other promoted by industry representatives - have delayed government
action to protect the health of citizens through bans or restrictions.

Action Needed

How has the plastics industry escaped serious regulation by the federal
government, especially since other federally regulated sectors that
create environmental or health risks such as pharmaceuticals,
pesticides, motor vehicles, and tobacco have their own statutes? In the
case of plastics, Congress instead has been content with limited federal
regulatory responsibility, now fractured among at least four agencies:
the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration, the Consumer Product Safety
Commission, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. None
of these agencies have demanded pre-market testing of plastic
ingredients, none have required ingredient labeling or warnings on
plastic products, and none have limited production, environmental
release, or human exposure. As a result, the entire U.S. population
continues to be exposed to hormonally active chemicals from plastics
without their knowledge or consent.

What should be done? The Kids Safe Chemical Act represents a
comprehensive solution that would apply to all commercial chemicals
including plastic ingredients. Yet the nation's chemical companies, with
their enormous political power, are not likely to agree to assume the
testing costs, nor are they likely to accept a health protective
standard. Rather than pass another weak statute, Congress should
consider a stronger alternative.

The nation needs a comprehensive plastics control law, just as we have
national laws to control firms that produce other risky products, such
as pesticides. Key elements of a national plastics policy should include
tough More from Yale e360

The Nitrogen Fix:
Breaking a Costly Addiction 
Over the last century, the use of chemical fertilizers has saturated the
Earth's soils and waters with nitrogen. Now scientists are warning that
we must revolutionize agricultural systems and reduce the amount of
nitrogen we put into the planet's ecosystems.

A Call for Tougher Standards
on Mercury Levels in Fish
In response to industry pressure, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
has failed to set adequate restrictions on mercury levels in fish. Jane
Hightower urges President Obama to tighten those standards and warn the
public which fish are less safe to eat.government regulations that
demand pre-market testing and prohibit chemicals that do not quickly
degrade into harmless compounds. Exempting previously permitted
ingredients from this evaluation makes little sense, as older chemicals
have often been proven more dangerous than newer ones.

Plastics ingredients found to pose a significant threat to the
environment or human health should be quickly phased out of production.
Congress chose this approach to manage pesticide hazards, and it has
proven to be reasonably effective since the passage of the Food Quality
Protection Act in 1996. Federal redemption fees for products containing
plastics should be set at levels tied to chemical persistence, toxicity,
and production volume. These fees should be high enough that consumers
have a strong incentive to recycle.

In order to make responsible choices in the marketplace, consumers also
need to be educated about the content and effects of the resins, so we
need mandatory labeling of plastic ingredients. The chemical industry
itself needs to replace persistent and hazardous chemicals with those
that are proven to be safe. Finally, manufacturers should take
responsibility for cleaning up environmental contamination from the more
than one trillion pounds of plastic wastes they have produced over the
past 50 years. 

POSTED ON 12 Nov 2009 IN 

John Wargo is professor of environmental policy, risk analysis, and
political science at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental
Studies, chairs the Environmental Studies Major at Yale College, and is
an advisor to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. His
latest book is Green Intelligence: Creating Environments That Protect
Human Health.

(c) 2008 Yale Environment 360

Deborah L. DeBiasi 
Email:   Deborah.DeBiasi at deq.virginia.gov (NEW!)
WEB site address:  www.deq.virginia.gov 
Virginia Department of Environmental Quality 
Office of Water Permit Programs 
Industrial Pretreatment/Whole Effluent Toxicity (WET) Program 
PPCPs, EDCs, and Microconstituents
Mail:          P.O. Box 1105, Richmond, VA  23218 
Location:  629 E. Main Street, Richmond, VA  23219 
PH:         804-698-4028 
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