Plastic; marketed since the 20th century as the material to take us screaming out of the dark ages with our uncivilised reliance on natural resources, and into the glossy, multicoloured world of polymers. Gone is the time needed for wood to mature, the inconvenience of mining for metal ore, and the complexity of glass manufacture, this ethereal compound is lightweight, cheap and can be moulded into any shape imaginable.
A shiny new material syphoned from the earth’s layers and bastardised into something that can only be described as human-made, Plastic was humanities latest demonstration of our triumph over nature. It’s resistance to weathering and versatility made plastic the perfect candidate for a wealth of new products, so we flooded the market with it, to be extruded, vacuumed and injection moulded.
It became an art form, to see to what limits we could stretch this new polymer. From tiny plastic pellets, we moulded babies rattles, cookware and furniture; flexible resins to coat anything we could get our hands on, from Teflon coating on pans to new composites like MDF; we pushed its basic properties and formed new materials with superior strength to weight ratios like carbon fibre. Products that had never before required packaging were now thrust into human-made clam shells, impenetrable blister packs and straitjacketed in cling film.
Plastic has and continues to advance society dramatically; increasing hygiene levels in hospitals; decreasing food contamination and wastage; and making products more affordable and accessible. With mounting positive evidence for this brave new plasticised world, the parallel climbing statistics of health concerns seemed inconsequential.
Naivety in favour of progress is documented in pretty much every national and global disaster in record. As pioneers stood at the most advanced point in human history, it’s easy to attribute past mistakes as consequences of our limited development at that moment in time. This vantage point leaves us prone to releasing materials and products into the public sphere without rigorous testing of the health risks and long-term effects because, well, look at how far we’ve come.
Our ancestors’ generations have routinely used materials without full awareness the negative health effects in favour of their advantageous properties. Labelled as revolutionary, Lead’s properties of ductility, low cost and high abundance gave rise to its widespread use in the Industrial Revolution as a component in the paint for use in a range of industries, from construction to babies cots. The only other time in history that the use of lead reached these levels was during the Roman Empire and is thought to have been one of the leading factors in their decline. Despite the suspicious length of time until it was used again, it took nearly one hundred years of 20th-century health reports for it to be officially banned from the market in the seventies. Mercury, commonly used in the felt-making process for hats from the 17th century through to the Victorian era, was so well known for its adverse health effects that the symptoms came to be affectionately known as ‘Mad Hatters Disease’ (thought to be Lewis Carrol’s inspiration for the character). Despite this, Mercury continued to be used for two centuries before war-time requirements for the metal led to its abandonment in the hat industry. Even then it wasn’t until 1991 that the US phased out mercury’s use as a pigment in paint. Most recently, Asbestos came into the public sphere marketed as a fire retardant. With its tensile strength, affordability and resistance to heat, it soon became the standard material in insulation for homes and electricals. Despite reports of escalating asbestos-related diseases since the 1920s, it wasn’t until the late 80s that the trade was effectively banned, and still today workers and their widows are receiving compensation of the effects of exposure of this novel material. Even Trump tried to use his business heavyweight status to bulldoze the wave of evidence against asbestos, stating in his 1997 book The Art of the Comeback that he believes ‘the movement against asbestos was led by the mob’. That’s right; Trump blames the mafia for the science against asbestos. Not surprisingly, the book was written during a lengthy court battle with workers suing him for asbestos heavy environments during the building of Trump Towers.
These materials managed to stay in the market centuries after the first drops of the floods of evidence of their danger to human health. It could be assumed to have slipped under the radar due to a lack of information that reached the general public, but the answer is far more sinister. Companies set to benefit from the manufacture and sale of unsafe products conspire to lobby against scientific research set to impede their profits. By blocking damaging legislation and promoting contradictory claims to challenge negative facts making its way into the public sphere, these companies can prolong their place at the top and protect against harm to their profits, as opposed to their customers.
Infamously in history, when the threat of health concerns came at the cigarette companies, they funded reports to prove the opposite. Producer Consulate paid scientists to produce evidence that stated methol cigarettes are shown to increase lung capacity. You’d be remiss to think this only happened in the past; lobbying against independent scientific research and the promotion of industry favouring studies is behind the fluctuating reports that grace the headlines today, that two glasses of red wine a day improves heart health, or that 3 cups of coffee each morning will make you smarter (a real claim). We can naively assume that scientists get into the field to protect the sanctity of good and true scientific research, and would be loath to put their name to science that comes in with bias. But under pressure to bring in funding, the promise of a £35k grant on the premise of favourable data about, say, chocolate, is tempting. The science itself is usually sound, but in order to get the results paid for, they can choose to ignore disfavourable effects or omit specific factors. Then it comes about that there is evidence that 600g of dark chocolate a day improves memory, and disregard of other evidence that the amount of sugar and fat along with that chocolate bar each day will increase your chance of diabetes dramatically. With all the funding heading into these studies and featuring the names of top companies, these snippets of facts in favour of indulgent vices are readily picked up by the media and the public, while scientists that aim to prove the opposite just aren’t published.
When industries can’t pay off the scientists, they stall them.
In 2012, the American Consumer Product Saftey Commision was looking to make permanent the temporary bans they put in place against chemicals present in plastic consumer goods, phthalates DINP, DIDP and DnOP. With rising health concerns of these phthalates, namely effects on the reproductive system, links to obesity, certain cancers, and developing fetuses and children, the UN and World Health Organisation suggested that governments ‘ban or restrict chemicals in order to reduce exposure early, even when there are significant but incomplete data’. ExxonMobil and other industry big boys who conduct business in these substances responded with heavy lobbying by funding senators, paying corporate scientists, and legal letters demanding peer review to string out the process. They succeeded in delaying the report for a year, and the resulting ruling had a considerably weakened stance; excluding the phthalate ban for parts of child items that are not “accessible to a child through normal and reasonably foreseeable use and abuse of such product.”
When the health risks of BPA first graced the scientific journals in 2004, the industry was flapping. A typical chemical additive used in the production of polycarbonate, it’s used in the manufacture of drinks bottles and sports equipment, and as a resin in food and drinks cans. Rising reports of BPA’s effects on the reproductive system that has been linked to early onset puberty, abnormal growth in breast and uterine tissues, falling sperm counts and the ‘feminising’ of men, led to deep concern from governments and the public about its place in our kitchen cupboards. True to form, industries took it to their special cabinet of scientists, and research by the Harvard Centre for Risk Analysis funded by the America Plastics Council found that low-dose effects of BPA on human health are weak. This finding came from just 19 studies after a delay of two and a half years, with evidence of ignoring unfavourable results and with some studies experimenting with a breed of rat unsuitable for studies of hormone responses concerning humans. Interestingly, no studies funded by those with vested interests have been found to show any significant effects of low doses of BPA on health, while over 90% of American government-funded studies have reported the opposite. Since 2008 it has been banned from use in baby bottles and children’s products, yet many governments continue the rhetoric of relative safety for food containers destined for use by adults. In 2017, the European Chemicals Agency has agreed that BPA is an endocrine disruptor, and has proposed to add it to the list of ‘substances of very high concern’, and yet it’s still available in supermarkets to buy your water in.
Polystyrene hasn’t had it any easier than polycarbonate. The main component styrene, from which it gets its name, has had a wealth of negative press. Ruled by Americas Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) through the National Toxicology Programme (NTP), styrene is ‘reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen’ and has been identified as a ‘substance under consideration’. Despite clear risks of the presence of this substance in our insulation, water pipes, car parts and take-out food containers, contradictory evidence floods the public space by the Styrene Information and Research Centre (SIRC) professing its safety in the exposure levels that it is in the environment. Despite the official title, members of the SIRC group consists of 95% of North American petrochemical companies. The entire alliance is made up of companies set to lose billions if styrene is listed as a carcinogen, yet they claim scientific impartiality. They conduct multitudes of studies on Styrene that are quoted by the Environmental Protection Agency and have spent over $20 million on research in the last 40 years. The problem isn’t specific to the United States; the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has identified styrene as a possible carcinogen, though we continue to buy doner kebabs incarcerated in it every Friday night.
Many of the studies used in Governments legislation on potentially dangerous materials use a ‘no significant risk level’ (NSRL) to assert that environmental concentrations of toxins pose no threat to human health. However in the 18 years of 21st century, we have used more plastic than was ever used in the whole of the century before us, and levels of plastic lining our shores is set to triple between now and 2050. Our exceeding use of plastics in the environment means that concentrations of harmful chemicals are growing every year, as is our exposure to them.
With Donald Trump’s brazen legislature against scientific fact and his crusade against FAKE NEWS which may just be true, we’re perpetuating biased science’s place in the public sphere, paid for by the people trying to further their environmentally blasphemous companies. As the Donald machine redesigns his senate with ex-CEOs of top companies like Exxon rather than career politicians and replaces the head of the Environmental Protection Agency with climate-change denier Scott Pruitt, we’re on a path for the future of fake science and dangerous materials being approved for safety.
As we continue to allow untested materials and products into our society, we will enable the capital from corporations without our health in mind, push sceptics into the conspiracy corner and leave them to their foil hat posturing. Has anyone told them that aluminium has been linked to health defects?