14. The Quiet Revolution in Plastics

Prof: 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.
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.
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.
the hard plastic composite that exists, for example,
in my glasses, these are also almost never
recycled. So what happens to them?
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
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. 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 the Boston 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. 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.

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