What if plastics hurt babies?

You may have thought they were dead, but the Evil Plastics are back.


You may have thought they were dead, but the Evil Plastics are back. A decade ago, each week's headlines rang with impassioned demands to ban plastics in some state or county or city. The imperative need was to protect us from trash. Most of those regulatory initiatives failed to pass, or were quietly dropped, or were subsequently overturned. The last few years have been pretty quiet by comparison. But several events of the past year should be a warning against complacency. The campaigns to demonize plastics are not over.

This time, the narrow end of the wedge is PVC. The environmental group Greenpeace has taken the lead in the latest campaign. According to one of its recent press releases, "Greenpeace has identified PVC as a poison plastic because its manufacture, use, and disposal have been linked to the generation and release of super toxic substances such as dioxin." The statement urges manufacturers to switch to "PVC-free materials."

I wouldn't want to overstate the influence of Greenpeace, but things do seem to have been going its way lately: The last few months have seen most U.S. makers of chewable infant toys drop the use of soft vinyl. Apparel maker Nike recently said it would phase out use of PVC in its footwear. Hospitals are being urged to reduce PVC usage (so as to keep it out of their incinerators). Architects and home builders are warned against using vinyl building products in order to protect the environment. Another ominous sign came in September, when Shintech Inc. suspended its year-long struggle to build a 1.1-billion-lb/yr PVC plant at Convent, La. Shintech's plans ran afoul of the new civil-rights concept of "environmental justice."

These are troubling portents--maybe not just for PVC. What other plastic may next be accused of harboring harmful chemicals--polystyrene, perhaps? Other issues still simmer: halogenated flame retardants, chemicals leaching from microwaved packaging, and so called endocrine disrupters, to name a few. The world is not yet safe for plastics. There's a lot of work to be done.