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

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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.

plastic bottles

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Plastic water bottles made with the carbonate plastic Bisphenol-A (BPA) on display at a California outdoor supply store.

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.

Nearly all chemicals in commerce have been poorly tested to determine their effects

on human health.

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 that 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.

Ingredients of plastics need not be labeled, and most manufacturers are unwilling to disclose them or their sources.

The billions of video games, computers, MP3 players, cameras, and cell 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 polycarbonate.

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 for 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 limit.

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 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.

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.

Article appearing courtesy of Yale Environment 360

About Author

Yale Environment 360 is an online magazine offering opinion, analysis, reporting and debate on global environmental issues. We feature original articles by scientists, journalists, environmentalists, academics, policy makers, and business people, as well as multimedia content and a daily digest of major environmental news. Yale Environment 360 is published by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale University. We are funded in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The opinions and views expressed in Yale Environment 360 are those of the authors and not of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies or of Yale University.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for posting something about chemical safety. I think making industrial chemicals safe for everyone is something we can all get behind. Problem is: mandating more chemical testing, the kind being advocated by the Safer Chemicals coalition, will kill millions of animals, cost lots of money, and give use questionable results.

    Recently the New York Times gave the example: “The chemical industry cites one recent study in which BPA did not cause harm to the reproductive health of Long-Evans rats. But that strain of rats has been found to be less susceptible to endocrine disruptors, while CD-1 mice (also used in many experiments) are more vulnerable. Are humans more like Long-Evans rats or like CD-1 mice?” This is precisely the problem.

    Many people and scientists agree that current legislation which regulates chemicals must be reformed. However, we should also be sure to reform the science that underlies these regulations—namely, the way in which toxicity testing is conducted.

    Currently, toxicity testing is largely based on experiments in animals and uses methods that were developed as long ago as the 1930’s and 40’s; they and are slow, inaccurate, open to uncertainty and manipulation, and do not adequately protect human health. These tests take anywhere from months to years, and tens of thousands to millions of dollars to perform. More importantly, the current testing paradigm has a poor record in predicting effects in humans and an even poorer record in leading to actual regulation of dangerous chemicals.

    Fortunately, many scientists have worked, and are working, on addressing these problems — and alternatives to animal testing exist in a powerful way. Chemical reform should not only modernize policy, but modernize the science that supports that policy. Let’s ensure that our new legislation uses all the necessary tools to truly make our children, our environment, and animals safe.

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