EVST 255: Environmental Politics and Law

Lecture 14

 - The Quiet Revolution in Plastics


Plastics are omnipresent but minimally understood and regulated in the United States. The lecture focuses on the dangers that chemicals in plastics pose to human health, particularly via leaching into food and water. Plastics are regulated by the Toxic Substance Control Act, which gives the Environmental Protection Agency the responsibility of testing to ensure that plastics do not adversely affect human health. When plastics can leach into food, the Food and Drug Administration can demand testing. Professor Wargo shows how oversights have led to limited labeling of hazardous plastics, which results in consumers having limited means of protecting themselves from harm.

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Environmental Politics and Law

EVST 255 - Lecture 14 - The Quiet Revolution in Plastics

Chapter 1. An Introduction to the Plastics Problem [00:00:00]

Professor John Wargo: Today I want to talk about what I think of as one of the most significant failures of environmental law in the twentieth century. And this is the way that we manage toxic substances. But this is a story that is more about not just the individual chemicals but also the products that are created when chemicals are merged together, they’re synthesized.

So what is the plastics problem? In part, it’s the enormity of the industry. About 119 billion pounds now produced each year in the United States. This is roughly about a $400 billion industry. And I mentioned earlier that just to give you a point of comparison to the pesticide industry, the pesticide industry produces about ten billion pounds. So it’s about ten times smaller than the plastics industry. And the annual sales from pesticides are about ten to twelve billion dollars per year in the nation. So compared to the attention that pesticides have been given over the past thirty to forty years, the plastics problem has been just about fully neglected by Congress. Although it did pass the Toxic Substance control act back in 1976. And this law was intended to encourage premarket testing of chemicals. And what we’ll see today is that the majority of chemicals remain untested, that the ingredients are unlabeled, the country of origin is unknown for most products. The recovery rate is exceptionally low. And recycling failure occurs for many reasons, but we’ll explore several of those later in the session.

Environmental contamination at a global scale has occurred. There are plastic particles, molecules in ambient air outside and indoors. Plastics have contaminated underground aquifers as well as surface waters in many parts of the industrialized world. There’s been universal human exposure. That exposure is chronic, you get it on a daily basis. And the health effects that we now are beginning to understand have to do predominately with endocrine disrupting compounds, chemicals that are mimicking human hormones. We rely, unfortunately, for the most part on animal studies to give us some insight into what the effects on humans are likely to be. But we rely on that evidence for many other classes of compounds as well.

So this area has received virtually no attention from the Environmental Protection Agency, and I want to talk a little bit today about why that is. So 850,000 people employed in this industry. That number 379 is now up about $400 billion per year, and plastics comprise seventy percent of the synthetic chemical industry in the nation, including 500 different resins.

Plastics labeling is confusing to many people. You may not look on the bottom of a milk carton or you may not look on the back of many different products to look at the recycling code. The recycling code in the United States is completely voluntary. There is no legal obligation to post the chemical content, the origin of the plastics or what should be done with it once the product is discarded.

So, give you an example here. Polyethylene, PET, has the symbol number one. So bottled drinks such as Pepsi and Coca Cola are packaged in PET. Sometimes it’s called PETE, polyethylene. There’s a high-density version of that, which is number two. And there’s a low density version of that, which is number four. So carrier bags and bin liners, for example, are the low-density polyethylene as opposed to say the gallon milk jugs which are the high-density polyethylene. The polyethylenes are the most likely to be recycled among all plastics. Polyvinylchloride, by comparison, PVC for short, is contained in many different products. Water pipes, and I’ll show you some examples of that in a few moments. It’s almost never recycled, which means that it’s either buried or it’s burned once it is finally discarded. Polypropylene, you may find polypropylene in rugs. You can find it also in margarine tubs, different kinds of food packaging products. But also in these microwavable meal trays.

Polystyrene, most people understand what styrene is. You are all familiar with styrene balls. But it’s also an absorbent material that’s put at the base of meats in packaging. And I mentioned to you that the packaging problem is, especially related to food, is incredibly complex. There’s no way for you to know what chemicals are in the packaging materials that you buy in the grocery store.

Seven is reserved for other kinds of plastic resins. So only those that do not fall into the other categories are given the number seven. And we’ll concentrate on one of those today, which is called bisphenol-A. Bisphenol-A is what’s used to form polycarbonate plastic that’s very dense, very hard, and often it’s in clear form. It can be colored. So Nalgene bottles are a good example of number seven, the polycarbonates. And also you might think of the headlamps on a car or a motorcycle helmet or a visor. These are all examples of polycarbonate.

Here is a chart that lists the recycling rate in yellow for all the different classifications. And you basically see PVCs are at the bottom of the list. So PVCs are not recycled because the chemical content is so complicated. The highest degree of recycling occurs with the polyethylenes. So the PETE bottles have roughly a twenty to twenty-five percent recycling rate on average in the United States. And this is highly variable by region in the nation. And also by time of the year. The polypropylene is almost never recycled, nor is polystyrene. Polycarbonates, the hard plastic composite that exists, for example, in my glasses, these are also almost never recycled. So what happens to them?

Chapter 2. Plastics: Omnipresent in Everyday Life [00:06:49]

I’m going to take you on a quick Cook’s Tour of plastic in your life. And you remember that I challenged you to try to find out if you could avoid purchasing plastics for a week, and if you are able to do that, I challenged you to avoid using plastics for a week. And I believe that today is a virtual impossibility. So I started to do a little inventory in my own life and actually got quite disturbed at myself and my own ignorance and what I had exposed my family to. And I became extremely interested in trying to kind of reconstruct why I was so clueless about the thousands of different products that had made their way into my life and into my family’s life.

Contact lenses are a good example. There are hard contact lenses and there are soft contact lenses. The hard lenses could contain bisphenol-A, it’s a polycarbonate. The softer contact lenses that will change their shape with your eye or as they rotate across a surface that is not completely even, those contact lenses normally contain phthalates. Phthalates are softeners, so bisphenol-A is the hardener, phthalates are softeners. And these phthalates are a particular problem with respect to one, which is called diethyl phthalate, DEHP, that I’ll talk about a little bit later.

My daughter wears a retainer. She’s ten years old, my youngest daughter. And I don’t know what’s in that. But I would imagine that it’s predominately polycarbonate. She wears it about twelve to fifteen hours per day. And also, most people have dental sealants. Dental sealants are pretty interesting. So that you can test people’s saliva after the dental sealants are put in and you can find the bisphenol-A in the saliva. Also, there’s a protective characteristic of these sealants. They prevent you from getting cavities that would demand putting a different kind of plastic into your tooth or a metal amalgam. And many people in my generation and my parents’ generation have fillings in their mouths that include metal amalgams, including compounds such as mercury. So it’s a very interesting kind of a tradeoff one might make.

Think about different other sources of plastic in your life. Most of you are probably familiar with that smell of the vinyl shower curtain when you first open the package and for a couple of days it’s off gassing in your bathroom. Different kinds of clothing, raincoats, fabrics, GORE-TEX, for example, are made out of different plastic resins. And these also are generally non-recyclable.

And I want you to think about the built environment. When a house is built in the Northeastern part of the U.S., it’s generally framed out of wood. You see the plywood there that’s being tacked onto these two by fours or two by sixes. And then you see the plastic sheathing that is being attached made by DuPont called Tyvek. Tyvek is an interesting product in that it seals the house from mold. And that also has a protective effect in that molds are known to threaten human health and induce asthma or exacerbate it, as one example. But this product also is extremely rarely recycled.

Tyvek also you can find in a variety of different settings. Here’s a Tyvek disposable coverall that is claimed by the corporation to protect against more than 150 hazardous chemicals. So for those people that work with hazardous chemicals, here’s a product that helps to protect them. The idea of it being disposable caught my attention. It’s advertised as being disposable. Certainly most things are disposable, but that doesn’t give you any clue about where they might end up eventually in the environment. In this case, this will not break down for probably hundreds if not thousands of years.

Now think about a house. This house has plastic in many different areas. It’s got vinyl siding on it, it has pillars, you can see pillars here on the front and over on the side. You might think those pillars are formed out of wood or perhaps that they’re ceramic, but they’re generally plastic. You see the light post, that’s plastic as well. You see the railing on top of the front porch near the front door here. This is also probably a polyvinylchloride plastic. Also the doors are commonly plastic. The windows, the window frames are plastic. And how do they seal? When your door shuts, it doesn’t shut with hard plastic meeting hard plastic, it’s got a separate liner that lies next to the door that will absorb the shock and also it will prevent heat from escaping. So generally with a window, you’ll have several different kinds of plastic, the same with doors. The vent that you see up here near the peak of the roof also would be plastic. So that the exterior surfaces of this structure are predominately made out of plastic. Many paints also contain plastics within them.

Think also about cord or wire. Wire is generally coated with vinyl, polyvinylchloride. And just as an example, there are, in a new building like Kroon Hall, where I’ve got my office, there are probably hundreds of miles of electrical conduit that circulate through that single building. And then think about power lines and the sheathing that exists on the power lines. Well how many miles of power line do you think there are in the United States? Well, one thing you could do is you could just calculate on Google, type in number of miles of roads in the United States, because most roads are also corridors for power lines. So I would estimate that we probably have hundreds of billions of miles of electrical cable that’s sheeted in polyvinylchloride, all of which is not recyclable. Interestingly, the value of copper inside the wire is high enough to encourage its recycling. But the value of the PVC is negligible.

Now I’d also like you to think about your own water supply. Think about where you grew up. Do you know where your water came from? Do you know how it was piped to your facets? Well, here’s an example of a water supply being fed by copper pipes at the top. And then there’s a distribution network throughout the house, going to say the refrigerator or going to the kitchen sink, going to toilets in different parts of the house. Well this also is made out of plastic. And one would think that somebody would have demanded that these chemicals be tested to understand whether or not they would leach out of the lines. And in many cases, particularly with newer houses, you’ll have a filtration system. And you may have seen these cartridge filtration systems. They look like canisters. They come in various sizes. I’ve got one in my house that’s a sediment filter as one example. And it was put in before I understood this whole plastics issue. And I also can tell you that it’s almost impossible to find a water filter that’s not made out of plastic. So within this plastic canister, it’s got a top that screws on. So to change the filtration you take the filter material out and then you put a new one in after a certain number of months. So that most water filters also are plastic. Also, nobody asked the question, well, what’s leaching out of the filters into the water line?

Now I’d like you to think about the vehicle environment. It’s kind of interesting. I use the phrase that people are spending in the United States about ninety percent of their time indoors. Well it’s about eighty-seven percent of their time indoors and it’s about three to four percent of their time within vehicles. And think about the interior cabins. On the upper left here, a new vehicle, so that this probably has maybe a couple of dozen different polymers in it, ranging from the TV screen and all of its components down through the plastic steering wheel, plastic dashboard, the plastic console between the seats. Different kinds of plastics in the seat itself, including the polyurethane foam inside the seat, almost none of which are recyclable. So eventually most of these parts that are made out of plastic are simply going to be burned, which gives off quite a bit of energy in an incinerator because of a high carbon content in the plastic. So remember that most of these plastics are derived from what? They’re petroleum-based. So that it’s very important to recall that fossil fuels, oil is the predominant source of plastics.

The interior of a subway or in this case, and Amtrak train on the upper right, also is predominantly plastic, as is the interior of an airline cabin. And this is all for an interesting and really important purpose. And that is to lighten the weight of the vehicle. So thirty years ago, vehicles were much heavier than they are today. So an average vehicle today might be 2,500 pounds, but an average vehicle perhaps forty years ago was perhaps 300 or 400 pounds more than that. Indeed, there are about 300 pounds of plastic in every new vehicle. And it’s pretty much guaranteed that that material would not be recycled.

Also, I’d like you to think about coatings, the whole idea of coating things. I realized that fairly late in my career that I hadn’t paid any attention to coatings. But if you think about the number of buildings that exist in the world, the number of buildings in the United States, think like say Sherwin Williams, the paint industry. You know what their phrase is? You know what their corporate motto is? Their corporate motto is “Cover the Earth.” And you see this red paint, their symbol is red paint that is flowing down across the top of a globe. Well, think about the surface area simply of this room. Think about the surface area in your house. The flooring, think about the walls, think about the ceiling. And if you’re an executive for a paint company, you’re thinking “Oh my gosh, we have such a huge market. Everybody is going to want to paint something a different color, and should we make the paints to be more stable or not quite as stable so that they would want to repaint after a certain number of years?”

So just as another example, I’ve done this myself, I’ve refinished floors, which is a pretty nasty business. You don’t want to spend much of your life refinishing a floor, especially if you are dressed such as this gentleman is, with no respirator on. Because he’s breathing in a pretty nasty mixture of dusts that include of course the wood flooring, but it also includes the plastic, the polyurethanes that are put down on the floor. You can see them right here up on the podium. You can see the shiny coating on top of the desk, and you can see it also on the desks on the side of your chairs. So that the number of surface coatings in the world is enormous in area, and we don’t really think about the long-term consequences of that.

What would happen if we didn’t coat these surfaces? What would happen to the floor? I mean, could you wash it? Could you not put a coating like polyurethane or varnish on walls like this? Would they decay or break down more quickly? And the answer is, no. And I’ve been wondering about that and I’ve been wondering about the origin or aesthetic of smoothness. We love smooth things, whether or not it’s skin, whether or not it’s a surface. If something is rough and harsh then it has a negative attitude toward it. So if you’re in the business of making these coatings, you play on that. Also, if you’re in the business of selling cosmetics, you also play on that.

What about other sources? I’ve mentioned fragrances in the past. These two contain plasticizers, diethyl phthalate has been found in a number of common perfumes as well as in some air fresheners. And also, think about other kinds of products in your life. Now why is a diaper absorbent? Why is a personal hygiene product absorbent? Well this diaper has probably two or three different kinds of plastic within it. And what’s going to happen to this? Well certainly, it’s not going to be recycled. It’s likely to be burned or buried.

Think about where you sleep. What is your mattress made out of? Anybody here know exactly what your mattress is made out of? Well, it’s a very difficult thing to discover. Again, there’s no requirement to label the content of your mattress or your pillow. You get a broad description of it, like polyester filled, polyurethane foam, but you really don’t know what the environmental fate of these compounds might be.

So what I’m doing is I’m painting a picture for you here that we’re all as innocent, you’re all as innocent as I am in thinking that, well, somebody must have been paying attention to this. Nobody would really want us to be lying with our noses within a half an inch of a surface where we had no understanding of what the chemical content is.

Think about toys. Ninety percent of the toys produced in the world now, between eighty percent and ninety percent are produced in China. And increasingly, they are made out of plastic. You know, consider yourself to be the executive of McDonald’s and you’re thinking about the introduction of a new meal, a new supersized meal or maybe an environmentally responsible downsized meal. What are you going to do? Well, one of the first things you’re going to do is you’re going to try to contract out with a toy manufacturer to try to figure out what the next toy is going to be that you’re going to give for free so all the children, when they come to McDonald’s, will sit and play with the toy while they eat their hamburger. Well, what happens to those toys? The overwhelming majority of them get discarded within a week of when they’re issued. And these also are not recycled.

Think about your own entertainment, what you purchase. And by the way, all of these toys are wrapped in plastic of different forms. And think about the polycarbonate CD disc, the number of CD discs that you have lying around your house or your apartment or your dorm room. And think about how you bought it? Well, it came in a cover that looked something like this. And it probably was also wrapped in some other additional kind of a vinyl coating, plastic coating on the outside that makes it actually difficult to get the disc out, at least in the store in an unobtrusive manner. So think about your iPhones, think about your iPods, think about your computers, think about your electronic world.

I want to talk a little bit more about food. Because food, as it turns out, is now believed to be the predominant source of chemical components in plastic that are now measurable in human tissues. And I’d like you to think also about the way that we store food, the way that we buy food, the way that it’s processed and how it’s packaged and sold. And it’s done in very specific ways to promote its freshness and to avoid food-borne illnesses, and this is very important. But we haven’t been thinking ecologically about how to manage this problem, because really no one has designed these products so that the end of the life fate is being considered. Indeed, no producer really has responsibility for disposal or the ultimate fate of the product.

Think also about your electronic world with respect to computers. I became fascinated when I read that a printer I was using had ink in it. And the ink, I mean obviously, the printer is formed predominately out of plastic or different kinds of plastics, including the electronics board. But I didn’t know that the ink itself could have plastic in it. Why would ink have plastic in it? Well, it turns out that the plastic in bisphenol-A has an effect on paper that it prevents the ink from spreading into the fibers of the paper once it’s applied. This is apparently more common with the inkjet printers or the heat-driven printers that you get as a credit card receipt.

Think also about bisphenol-A and polycarbonates and the next generation of water bottles and containers. So that many people have recognized now that when infants are fed formula, it’s very common for a mom or a dad or whoever to fill up a bottle, a plastic bottle, either with hot water or to put it in the microwave. So that the idea that heating of these products could energize the molecules and cause some of them to migrate into the food or the liquid itself, this was not tested. It was not required to be tested in a sufficient way by the Food and Drug Administration. Although the Food and Drug Administration has the legal authority to do so.

So what I’m doing is painting a picture here that the Environmental Protection Agency has the responsibility to implement the Toxic Substance Control Act. They have not required prior testing. They have not demanded that hazardous components, those chemicals that are found to adversely affect the health of other species, that they be eliminated from the product. And there’s no labeling involved, either in the country of origin or in the chemical composition of the product. So there’s absolutely no way that the consumer has to discriminate between a safe or unsafe or environmentally responsible products.

Also, I want you to think a little bit more about what we drink from. And many of these containers have some fibers, plant material in them. But they are often coated with plastic as well. This is a typical grocery store. And the next time you walk into a supermarket, I hope you walk down the aisles. And I want you to pay special attention and look particularly for products that are not wrapped in plastic or they’re not stored in plastic environments.

The same thing goes with respect to Coke. I gave a lecture similar to this several months ago. And I was struck. A gentleman came up after the lecture, he was a very heavyset guy. And he said, “I drink three to four liters of soda every day.” And he said, “From what you said, I’m worried about the plastic chemicals migrating into the liquids and whether or not it’s building up in my body.” I’m thinking, oh, three to four liters of soda per day. That’s not good with respect to the sugar alone. And he said, “Well, from what you’ve said, the internal lining of the cans is lined with an epoxy resin that often contains bisphenol-A. Now, should I choose to drink Coke in cans or should I drink the Coke out of these liter bottles that are made out of polyethylene.” Well I said to him, I thought for a couple of minutes and I said, “Well, you know, I think I would avoid the cans because at least the polyethylene does not have a hormonally active compound in it such as bisphenol-A.

Well he was not pleased about the story. But it gives you some insight into the way that the epoxy resins are being used in order to prevent oxidization on the inside of all sorts of cans. Canned tomatoes, think about your dining hall, any of you work in the dining hall, think about the large cans that they have their food delivered within. And all these are potential sources of exposure.

Think of the way that meats are packaged, that are wrapped in vinyl that are sitting on polystyrene, none of which is recycled. What happens when you get your food home? Well, you bring it into a refrigerator. And where do you store it? You store it inside plastic bins. And my refrigerator looks quite a bit like this.

And what I am not showing you here is the water supply. So that some refrigerators have a little interior cut out in the front door where you push a glass into it to get fresh water or it’s an ice dispenser. So that tracing the origin of the water to that will lead you to plastic tubing, which is made out of a phthalate, could be bisphenol-A. What happens to all these products once we get rid of them? Well, it’s kind of ironic that we take them out and we put them in a plastic trash bin. I just walked in past Vanderbilt Hall and you all know the walkway. And there are about fifteen or twenty different plastic garbage cans all lined up. What happens to those when they crack? Where do they end up? Similarly, most will end up either underground or they will end up in incinerators.

Think about sports. I was thinking about Lindsey Vonn. And as I was skiing over Christmas break, I thought about my own gear that I have on. I had plastic skis on, I had plastic boots on, I had a plastic polycarbonate helmet on, I had plastic goggles on, on top of my polycarbonate plastic lenses. I had a Gortex jacket on, I had waterproof pants on that not only were synthetic and formed at least in part out of plastic, but they also had been applied with a waterproofing agent that we talked about earlier, a compound that basically is designed to prevent molecules from resting on them. So that they shed water, they shed stains, stain-resistant chemicals. And also, I had underwear that was long underwear that was made out of fleece. Fleece is polyethylene often. And fleece actually can be recycled, so that some people claim, such as Patagonia, that they use a certain percentage of recycled polyethylene when they make some of their products. The poles themselves are made often out of plastic, as are the handles and the baskets. So that just about any sport you can imagine is now dependent quite heavily on plastic. The sleds that they use, the sled that won the Games the other night for the U.S. has an outer shell that would be polycarbonate, so it would have reduced weight but great strength.

By the way, I really appreciated plastic in my car about two years ago. I was driving down ninety-five  [Interstate 95] and I was rear ended by a maniac who was going about ninety-five miles an hour, the police estimated. And I was doing about seventy or seventy-five. But my car survived quite well. It’s a Toyota. And the Toyota absorbed the shock in the back and I fishtailed back and forth in the passing lane and eventually brought my car over. I got out and looked at the back and the back end was all banged up and smashed up. And that’s when I realized, boy, they really have a system down here with these collapsible bumpers where they have different kinds of plastic that are lined up that have different degrees of hardness in them to basically distribute the energy from a crash. So the use of plastic compounds for their lightness, for their energy conservation, for their safety, it is clearly growing in public acceptance.

Think also about other recreational equipment. Many of you may have a Camelbak. What’s in a Camelbak anyway? Well, it’s a plastic bladder made from polyurethane, but it contains no bisphenol-A or no phthalates. There is an antimicrobial silver lining. So when people started realizing that they didn’t want to buy the sport bottles, such as Nalgene because of bisphenol-A, Camelbak was quite fortunate that they had chosen a different material. And think about stainless steel bottles, such as these Klean Kanteens. These are not lined with an epoxy resin that contains bisphenol-A.

And I told you the story about my own well water. But this is a good example here of a tank that also has a — this is my water supply. A tank that has an epoxy resin coating on the inside, and then over here on the right-hand side, you can see that canister, that water filter that I was describing to you earlier.

Think about the Brita filter system. Brita also is made out of a plastic polycarbonate and also a styrene. And if you pay attention to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, you know that bottled water curiously is under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration, whereas EPA is responsible for tap water. That really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. There’s a separate set of compounds that one might expect in bottled water, based upon the potential for the compounds to leach from the plastic into the water.

Chapter 3. Where Does All That Plastic Go? [00:33:05]

So overall, the plastic problem is that it surrounds us, we live in it, we eat from it, we drink it, we play with it, we work with it, we listen to it, we watch it, we cook in it. So where is this material going in the environment? For one of the phthalates, the DEHP I mentioned earlier, here’s an example of mean concentrations detectable now in the environmental. It’s detectable in surface water. It’s detected in ground water. It’s detected in drinking water. It’s in sediments in the bottoms of lakes as well as streams and rivers. It’s found commonly in soils. It’s found especially in soils that are beneath landfills. So when we buried the plastic material, nobody thought about how bad the soil contamination might get, how concentrated, and where it might migrate and could it get down into the underlying aquifer. It’s found in indoor air, 109 nanograms per cubic meter.

It’s found in outdoor air, which to me is really quite surprising. Again, this is a function of the sensitivity of the detection technology. But this is really quite a comment on our neglect of chemicals and misunderstanding their movement through the environment and their ultimate fate. It’s detectable inside in house dust. It’s detectable in waste water. That should be no surprise. And why would that be? Well, my gosh, I mean, we’re feeding ourselves with water that’s coming in pipes that are made out of plastics, and then we’re disposing of waste, the drainpipes themselves are polyvinylchloride. So why wouldn’t you find residues in the waste water?

And for me in one way this is maybe the most disturbing, it’s in the rainwater, so that it’s detectable in rainwater just the same way that strontium-90 was detectable in rainwater. So here’s a case where we’ve got an industry that basically has a legal framework that most of the other chemical companies, like tobacco, pesticides, pharmaceutical companies, I mean, they would kill to have a legal license such as is being enjoyed by the plastics industry. This is an example of serious failure, and it would be a really interesting kind of a longer-term research project if anybody’s looking for a senior essay down the road to ask the question, especially if you’re interested in political science, why wouldn’t this industry be more heavily regulated than it is? How did they escape control? How do they fly underneath the radar screen?

Again, I’m reminded of Dustin Hoffman’s film, The Graduate, where a middle-aged guy walks up to Dustin Hoffman and pulls him aside at a party where Mrs. Robinson is hovering around in the background next to the pool. And he walks up and he says, “I have one word for you, son. And it’s plastics.” Now this was back in the mid-1960s. So that we’ve had this explosion of an industry that’s gotten into hundreds of thousands of different products. The chemicals, plastic chemicals have gotten into the products, they’ve made their way into our life. And most of us have recognized what’s plastic and generally what’s not. But we really haven’t thought about what it might mean for either our health or environmental quality.

So I want to spend just a couple of minutes having you think about the hormonal question that’s being raised by plastics. And this was first recognized by Rachel Carson when she wrote Silent Spring back in 1962. And I’ve mentioned this on occasions before, but not with respect to hormonally active compounds, where she discovered along with colleagues that exposure to a variety of pesticides that where hormonally active prevented calcium metabolism in eggshells. So that it caused reproductive failure in certain species, especially large raptors. Well that concept — that we need to worry about reproductive effects of some of these chemicals — it really escaped much attention on the part of government through the majority of the ’60s and 1970s and then 1980s.

And then in 1996, Theo Colburn, who also is a wildlife ecologist like Rachel Carson, wrote Our Stolen Future. So if you’re interested in this history, I would encourage you to read Our Stolen Future. It’s written as kind of a mystery story, a scientific detective story they say in their subtitle. But she wrote this with Diane Dumanowski, a longtime reporter with theBoston Globe, and John Meyers, who also is a wildlife ecologist. If you want to follow this in more detail, I recommend Ted Shettler’s and Gina Solomon’s book called Generations at Risk. So thinking about how our fertility might be affected by these chemicals, that we’re experiencing mixtures without our knowledge, without our consent. This is really the subject of most of these books.

So I want to look more carefully at one of these compounds, bisphenol-A, because it’s one that I think almost everybody now has detectable levels of BPA in their tissues. And it’s now recognized to leach from containers. It’s in soils and surface water and fish. And it’s highest in kids aged one to six. Now that’s really pretty curious. Why would it be highest in kids ages one to six? Experts inside EPA and FDA now believe that food and beverages are the dominant sources of exposure. By the way, there is yet no good answer to the question why the kids are more heavily exposed.

The effects in animals include female reproductive tract abnormalities, including abnormalities in the ovary and abnormalities of the reproductive tract in older female mice and changed vaginal morphology among post-pubertal offspring. And it also influences the male reproductive system in different species, including reduced sperm production, reduced mice testes weight and enhanced anogenital distance. It also has been shown to induce mammary gland development in mice.

So thinking about this chemical and thinking about the different decision making standards that exist in different environmental laws that we’ve got, I’m curious about this in that in bisphenol-A were being sold as a biocide, as a pesticide, the EPA could not possibly license this chemical for use. The persistence of the chemical, its environmental fate, its threat to health as evidenced by these studies would be significant enough to prevent that from happening. It’s also been associated more recently with insulin resistance, raising questions about diabetes. And also, there is some evidence of impaired immune function. Now think about the fact that we’re all being exposed to hormonally active chemicals and mixtures without really understanding it. We don’t really know what the intensity of our exposure is.

So what are we seeing out there in terms of fertility or diseases of reproduction in humans? Well, we’re seeing a rise in the prevalence of infertility, a serious rise over the past several decades. And we’re also seeing a rise in some negative effects in humans, in males, particularly in young males, increase in hypospadias, which means that the opening of the penis does not occur at the end of the penis, it occurs further up the shaft. And also cryptorchidism, which means that little kids don’t have fully descended testicles when they’re born. So that there are a variety of different reproductive problems occurring in the population at higher incidence than formerly.

Well, it’s curious when a debate like this occurs, when a product is out there on the marketplace, it’s treated globally, what do we do about it? Well, the government, the regulatory agencies tend to call in experts and get expert opinions. So the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, NIEHS, convened a panel, it turned out the panel was put together and some of the reading materials were put together by some representatives of the industry itself so that many had a view that this was not really an independent analysis of what the effects of bisphenol-A might be. And they concluded with a phrase “That there is some concern that exposure to bisphenol-A causes some of these reproductive problems.” A second panel was convened of independent scientists that had no connections to the plastics industry or the bisphenol-A industry at all. And they concluded something quite different. “The wide range of adverse effects of low doses of BPA in laboratory animals exposed both during development and adulthood is a source for concern with regard to the potential for similar adverse effects in humans.”

So that this idea that you take a question of science and you raise it in front of a group of experts really forces one to think carefully about what the conflicts of interest might be for those experts. How could you put together a committee that clearly was independent? Well, full disclosure is one way of doing that. So that demanding the people disclose their income tax records or disclose their affiliations or their consulting relationships with different industries could clarify in the public’s mind whether or not there is a high probability of a bias.

Well, remember what I said about bisphenol-A being the hardener, the phthalate, DEHP is a softener, it’s produced in a much lower volume, 260 million pounds per year. It’s also found in our bodies. It’s added to PVC plastic. And its recycling percentage is close to zero. And it also is widely found in the environment. And it’s been found with similar kinds of adverse effects in males, in test animals, including reduced sperm production and early onset of puberty.

Chapter 4. How Plastics Have Escaped Regulation [00:43:49]

And all of this exposure is coming predominately because of the failure of the Toxic Substance Control Act. So Congress really recognized that we needed to test these chemicals before they made their way into the market back in the early 1970s. So they passed TSCA and gave the authority to EPA to demand pre-market testing. But they didn’t do anything about it. So again, the universe of chemicals is big, 82,000 chemicals traded in commerce, they have some commercial value. About 20,000 of those were added since 1986. And what that means is that this statute, the way it’s worded, it granted exemptions as chemicals that were grandfathered or protected in the marketplace that couldn’t be removed by EPA to 62,000 different compounds.

The statute is unusual also because it places a high burden on EPA to demonstrate that there is a significant danger before it can demand from the industry that they produce the evidence. Now, just pharmaceuticals and like pesticides and other products that we’ve talked about, how much sense does it make to have the industry producing the data themselves and then presenting their case to the Environmental Protection Agency for licensing? Where should this occur? Should there be some sort of an independent organization set up that would be more protected from potential bias? Well clearly, there’s an economic stake involved, and industry is anxious to spend that money. But this high burden on EPA to demonstrate danger is the primary reason for the failure of the Toxic Substance Control Act. So that over this period of time, they have demanded testing for only 200 different chemicals. And out of those 200, only five have been prohibited.

So what are states and other governmental agencies doing about this? Well, a variety of state initiatives, including here in Connecticut, have been launched. And a number of us have been involved in drafting legislation in different states. But here in Connecticut, we now have a statute on the books as of last year that requires that bisphenol-A be taken out of products that are intended to be used by young children. And similar statutes have been passed in these other states.

You can think about regulatory policy being of testing a chemical, figuring how dangerous it is and then figuring out how you might regulate it. Or you might just say, here’s a clear threshold. If a chemical behaves in this way, say it’s persistent, it’s bioaccumulative, it’s found in human tissues, and it’s demonstrated to be hormonally active, that that’s it. It’s out of the marketplace. That’s a prohibitive policy. So once you decide not to employ a prohibitive policy, once you decide not to ban, you basically require the regulatory agency to figure out exactly which uses would be allowed and which would not. And it creates a very expensive and difficult, time consuming monitoring and enforcement problem for an agency. So the regulation — chemical by chemical, use by use — is not likely to have much effect in solving a problem such as this.

California is requiring a listing of DEHP under its Proposition 65. And this was required in 2008. And what it’s done is, it’s limited the concentration of DEHP in products to less than 0.01 percent. Now what would that do? You’re going to limit the concentration of a chemical in a product to 0.012 percent. It’s going to force the government into becoming a monitoring organization. So it’s got to go out and it’s got to test in order to find products that do not comply. Again, very expensive, and a strategy that’s not likely to work.

Now, the European Union is taking a very different approach. They have adopted a law in 2006 known as REACH. And REACH requires toxicity and environmental fate testing for 1,500 of the highest volume chemicals, the highest amount produced among the 80,000 chemicals that are out there that are poorly tested. It’s also a program that’s been delayed. The endocrine screening program will not begin until 2012. The mixture problem remains. They still are not going to tackle the issue that we’re exposed in mixtures that might act via the same mechanism. And also, they will be grandfathering many of the chemicals that are produced in the smaller quantities.

But why would it not make sense to focus exclusively on the high-production volume chemicals? Well, you’ve got to think about the fact that there could be some chemicals that are extremely potent and extremely dangerous at very low doses. So plutonium again is a good example of that.

Also, corporations are acting on their own, so that PVC corporate phase-out policies have been adopted by a variety of firms, including these. And this is having a very significant effect. Number one, it’s educating a lot of people. When they see a label that says PVC free or BPA free, they start to pay attention and ask questions, why that might be.

And I want you to back up and I want you to think about really what the core of this problem is. It really is consumerism, the fact that we buy much more than we need. We don’t pay attention in a way to the ingredients of different products that we bring into our environment. It also has to do with the ignorance of our effects of our own behavior. When I was preparing this lecture over the past couple of days, I have to admit that I got really angry with myself. I got angry and I got surprised, because I think of myself as somebody that should have known better. I should have adjusted my lifestyle to what I recognize as a potential threat, not just to the environment, not just to the population, but to my own kids. So there are many reasons for that that don’t have to do with me. But I should have known better than that. And hopefully after taking this course, you will not make this kind of problem yourself.

You can think about national regulation as a partial solution because the markets are global. People are trading these products and chemicals across national borders all the time. So what does it mean if the United States passes a law, but say Germany does not pass the law? Or Germany’s got a more restrictive statute than the United States? That’s a recipe for trade barriers that are likely to be eventually litigated.

So think also about the concentration and dispersion of products and the effect of one corporation like McDonald’s or say Toyota to make a choice that they are going to not use certain products. That they’re not going to distribute a billion new toys over the next two years with their new market line. Or that they’re going to demand ultimate accountability for the eventual fate or end of life of their product, the way that some of the printer companies have that have demanded the recycling, or not demanded, but offered to take back the ink cartridges once they are empty. So basically, the government has been neglecting externalities and there has been an absence of accountability.

So here is a list of potential solutions. And I know we’re out of time. Go through these. These will be up on the website later this afternoon. So I’m going to conclude there and just remind you that the electronic exam will be emailed out to you today at five o’clock, that you have forty-eight hours to return it, and return it both to the Classes*v2 server drop box, but also please return it to your teaching assistants.

Thanks very much, and good luck. And I probably won’t see many of you before break, so I hope you have a really great break.

[end of transcript]

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